I FOLLOW my guide, Temur, through the streets of the ancient city of Samarkand, distracted by young Uzbek girls who want to take a selfie with me. Western tourists are still enough of a novelty here to warrant attention — although, as I get my first glimpse of the glittering-blue madrasahs (schools) of Rajasthan Square, it is difficult to understand why.
This trio of grand Islamic schools — with turquoise minarets, peacock-blue domes, and towers decorated with tiles and ceramics in a thousand different shades of blue (representing the ascension to paradise, and the Islamic colour of mourning) — are as breathtaking a sight as the Taj Mahal, or the Alhambra; for me, they epitomise the romance of the Silk Road, with its images of caravans bearing spices and treasures from East to West.
Joanna Lumley travelled here as part of her four-part series on the Silk Road, broadcast last year, which highlighted the trading routes from China through Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, from the second century BC to the Middle Ages (Media, 5 October 2018).
Textiles, paper, spices, tea, salt, sugar, porcelain, horses, medicine, glassware, precious metals and stones, slaves, weapons, and gunpowder were among the items traded along the route, helping to shape the ancient as well as the modern world. But the route also facilitated the spread of the plague, as well as political and religious thought.
Samarkand, arguably the route’s most iconic city, was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329, and ruled by a succession of Iranian and Turkic rulers until Genghis Khan conquered it in 1220. In the 14th century, it became the capital of the empire of the Turko-Mongol warlord Timur (known in the West as Tamerlane), and is the site of his beautifully reconstructed Gur-e-Amir mausoleum.
AFTER the sights of Rajasthan Square and a haggle in bazaars near by over some colourful ceramics and luxurious silk rugs, for which Samarkand is also famous, I take a detour into the narrow streets of the Jewish quarter. Uzbekistan is 95 per cent Muslim, but has a tiny Jewish community, a thriving Roman Catholic church, and an Armenian church.
Climbing the hill out of Samarkand, I stop off at the Tomb of Daniel, the mausoleum built for the Old Testament prophet revered by Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike. It may or may not be Daniel’s final resting place, but it is a blissfully peaceful spot that has a natural spring with reputed healing powers, and a panorama over the city that twinkles blue and gold in the afternoon sun.
In hills close by, another of Samarkand’s must-visit sites is the reconstructed observatory of Timur’s famous grandson Ulugbek, an important astronomer, scientist, architect, and ruler in his own right. Ulugbek was responsible for building one of the glittering madrasahs in Rajasthan Square, and his observatory was considered one of the finest in the Islamic world at the time. One of the most important astronomical instruments in the observatory was only fully excavated in the early 20th century. And I pore over copies of his fascinating star-charts.
Along with Samarkand, popular on Uzbekistan’s Silk Road tourist track are the cities of Khiva and Bukhara, all of which underwent restoration under occupation by the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan became part of the USSR in 1918, and, although Communist ideology forbade religious iconography, the Soviets respected the artistic legacy of the past and repaired many historic sites. All three city centres are now World Heritage sites.
istock Tourists shop stalls in Khiva
A SHORT drive from Samarkand, in Bukhara, thought to be one of the oldest cities in the world, I sit in a tiny tea shop, pungent with the scent of cardamom, clove, and anise, and sip a cup of ginger tea in the shadow of Kalon Minaret, built in 1127. At 47 metres high, it is thought to have been the tallest building in Central Asia.
A short stroll away, between two covered colourful bazaars, is the oldest surviving mosque in Central Asia: Maghaki-Attari. It seems an odd mixture of styles and history: its façade is ninth century, enhanced by 16th-century reconstruction. Its site was once the location of a fifth-century Zoroastrian temple, and an earlier Buddhist one, but now it houses a carpet museum.
The ancient walled city of Khiva, said to have been founded by Noah’s son Shem, after a well was found here, has been described as a living museum. Some of its buildings are 1000 years old, and its city centre has changed little in two centuries. An emerald-green dome topped with a large brass finial marks the city’s holiest site: the shrine of Khiva’s patron saint, Pakhlavan Mahmud, who was a famous poet and a maker of fur hats.
The city is also the centre of the traditional carpet-making industry of Uzbekistan. As I look around the Allakuli Khan madrasah, bazaar shopkeepers dressed in chapans (quilted robes) hop out in front of me from their stalls, intricately patterned carpet samples draped over their arms in an effort to tempt me to buy.
istock Ladies selling colourful Uzbek bread
Although Khiva, Bukhara, and Samurkand are the biggest draws in Uzbekistan, most package tours start in the capital, Tashkent, as mine did. Much of the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1966, and was rebuilt by the Soviet Union, its occupier for 73 years. Modern buildings sit alongside surviving examples of past architecture and squares.
The Hotel Uzbekistan, one of the city’s best-value hotels, is a good example of Soviet architecture. But it is the city’s Metro system, built in 1973, and said to be the most elegant in the world, that entrances me. Adorned with mosaics, mirrors, and chandeliers, each station is unique, making the London Underground look very dull.
Away from the Soviet area is the Old Town, associated with medieval and colonial Tashkent, and home to artisans, craftsmen, bakers, and chefs. Here I sample the Uzbek national dish, plov, for the first time: a hearty and filling rice-based dish like a pilaff, available in 14 varieties, traditionally cooked by men in a large pan using meat fat (usually beef or lamb).
Pescatarians may struggle to find fresh fish in double-landlocked Uzbekistan, but carp is sometimes used in plov, and I find smoked trout and other fish on offer in many restaurants. A vegetarian plov uses the fat from vegetable oils and sometimes vine leaves. The dish is usually preceded by an assortment of salads and pickles, and is washed down with tea, but I sample some delicious Uzbek wines, too.
In the bakeries, which are largely a female domain, the Uzbek women go to elaborate lengths to decorate their loaves with seeds and colouring. I cannot resist the smells of a tiny bakery in the Chorsu Bazaar, in Tashkent Old Town, where a team of proud saleswomen are eager to show off their shiny pastries and bejewelled loaves.
There is much more, of course, to Uzbekistan for the adventurous traveller: the region of Chimgan is called “Uzbek’s Switzerland” because of its mountains, characterised by streams and juniper forests. The fertile Fergana Valley is filled with pretty pomegranate and apricot orchards, while those who wish to experience a different sort of central Asian culture can sleep under the stars in a traditional yurt in Nurata, near the ruins of Alexander the Great’s fortress.
For all these reasons, but also — tour operators say — to improved infrastructure, safer environment, and relaxed visa regulations (courtesy of the current president, elected in 2016), visitors to Uzbekistan are on the increase. The high-speed train to (and from) Tashkent, from where I fly, may not have the romance of the caravans during the golden age of the Silk Road, but will introduce a new generation of explorers to the many delights of Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan Airways flies direct from London Heathrow to Tashkent (https://uzbekistanairways.uk.com), and the country is easier than ever to visit after the introduction of an electronic visa system (www.uzbekembassy.org). The best time to go is during spring or autumn, as summer can be very hot and winters cold. The country is GMT +5hrs, and English is widely spoken. The website The Man in Seat Sixty-One gives advice how to travel by train to and across Central Asia, including advice on train travel in Uzbekistan and on the Silk Route train route from Moscow, through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Beijing (seat61.com). Pettitts has Uzbekistan Revealed: ten days from £2835 pp, including flights, private car and driver, sightseeing with English-speaking guides, accommodation, and taxes (www.pettitts.co.uk). Responsible Travel offers a ten-day Uzbekistan Silk Route Tour, from £1890 (www.responsibletravel.com). Trips to the yurt camp and other tours can be booked through the Uzbek company Responsible Travel LLC (www.naratau.com).