Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva….wonderfully evocative sounding names that trip off the tongue like a 1001 Arabian Nights.
I certainly wasn’t the first to respond to the siren call of these romantic-sounding places and head east into the wilds of Central Asia, following in the footsteps of the Great Game players.
So what was it like? In short – mesmerizing! Beginning in Tashkent and journeying westwards along the string of glittering ancient Silk Road cities for which Uzbekistan is synonymous, at times it felt like a magical carpet ride. Tamerlane’s signature turquoise ribbed domes shimmering in the dry desert air, dazzling blue tile work running riot over entire buildings and wonderfully symmetrical madrassahs; it wasn’t so much of a feast for the eyes as a full-blown ten-course visual banquet! One UNESCO World Heritage Site followed another in astonishing succession, however, it was also the warmth of the local people, their propensity for gold dentistry and the piles of wonderful produce and decorative lepyoshka bread in the markets that left a marked impression.
Central Asia, a mesmerizing melting pot of peoples sitting astride the great Silk Road, has exerted its influence for millennia and in spite of the dangers at times has always attracted those in search of adventure. The good news now for those considering this fascinating region is that there’s never been a better time to visit, and you can do it comfortably, which isn’t necessarily the case across the whole of this region.
As Uzbekistan emerges from its communist past and re-discovers its national identity it has embraced tourism, built up a decent tourist infrastructure and invested heavily in restoring its glittering cultural heritage. The region has also undoubtedly benefited from the turbulence in the Middle East as people look for alternative destinations without having to fly long haul.
My highlight (one of many), walking through Samarkand’s extraordinary Registan Square, Central Asia’s finest architectural assemblage, with the soft light of early morning playing on the tile work. The day ended as spectacularly as it started, with a blood-red sunset as we traversed the fabled Kizilkum Desert and then peeling away layers of desert grime in a well-earned hammam in Bukhara.
This ancient crossroad of cultures continues to more than live up to expectations. I left Uzbekistan with full memory cards and a new found taste for vodka.