Uzbekistan is a wonderful country offering everything the modern traveller desires: comfortable accommodation, stunning architecture, fascinating history with its links to the ancient silk route, and lastly but by no means least, some of the most hospitable people in the world.
A pivotal destination on the ancient silk trading route, Uzbekistan sits at the heart of Central Asia and showcases some of the most beautiful Islamic architecture in the world.
Away from the turquoise tiled mosque domes, towering minarets and geometric mosaics are a wealth of talented artisans nurturing and preserving skills, some dating back thousands of years. Along with spices, fabrics, fragrances, precious stones and animals, many of these crafts were bought and sold on the ancient network of trading routes.
Knives, wool carpets, skullcaps, block printing and of course silk, are just some of the many crafts for which Uzbekistan is renowned.
I remember walking into a small shop in Bukhara and being met by a master knife maker. When he opened his mouth, every tooth was covered in shining gold, not too dissimilar to the 007 villain, Jaws, with a body frame to match. Nearby, another workshop was involved in Bukhara’s other well- known craft, gold silk embroidery. Exquisite pieces adorned every surface and hung from the walls, while ladies in dazzling multi-coloured Uzbek dress crouched over their embroidery frames.
In Samarkand, its infamous Registan square makes the picture postcard of Uzbekistan, the backdrop of many hidden gems. I met the men who worked on creating items in copper and brass, delicately tapping away to get the desired three-dimensional pattern. This city has also long been noted as a centre of high-quality paper manufacture, using the bark from mulberry trees.
In Khiva, old men, and boys were learning their new crafts, working away carving wooden beams and pillars for the array of ancient buildings that need repair. Carpet weavers still use old techniques and natural dyes. For fun, some of the pottery firms and cottage industries produce colourful characters of old Uzbek men, beards and pot bellies prominent, wearing brightly coloured gowns or baggy trousers.
In Eastern Uzbekistan lies the fertile valley of Fergana. A bustling ethnic melting pot shielded by mountains, and a crucial link on the fabled silk route as the centre for silk production. In the city of Margilan, it is possible to visit a workshop where original handmade methods of silk ikat production are still used. Close by is the town of Rishtan, a centre for glazed ceramic production and home of Rustam Usmanov, a renowned master of blue ceramics fames for his intricate and rich patterns.
It is through our years of experience in central Asia that we have built up an array of expert contacts and with this expertise, comes privileged and behind the scenes access.
An example of this is, Davlat Toshev, a member of the Academy of Arts in Uzbekistan and considered to be one of the most exciting and in-demand contemporary masters of the Bukhara Miniatures and Calligraphy School. Join him for dinner in his home. What better way to learn about life in Uzbekistan and his craft which dates back to the 14th Century.
On our small group tour to Uzbekistan, travel with Chris Aslan Alexander. He resided in Uzbekistan for a number of years and allows our group privileged access to his artisan weaving cooperative that he set up in Khiva.
The Five Stans
For a true Central Asian adventure offering diverse landscapes and cultures, combine Uzbekistan with its neighbouring ‘Stans’.
Most easily combined is Kyrgyzstan. Visa-free and a short hop to the east, Kyrgyzstan offers magnificent landscapes of forested mountains, grassy steppes; home to nomadic communities, crystalline lakes and rolling valleys.
Also eastbound is Tajikistan, a wild and forgotten corner of the globe with a fascinating history and over 90% of the land covered by mountains.
To the south sits Turkmenistan, home to Merv, one of the most important cities on the silk route and the vast Karakum desert where the 230 feet wide Darvaza gas crater, has remained mysteriously alight for over 40 years.
Lastly is Kazakhstan, a huge landlocked country of rolling plains, rich in oil and minerals with its own archaeological sites situated along the Kazakh/Uzbek border.
When to Travel to Central Asia
Due to the varying landscapes across the region there can be dramatic changes in the climate. In general, the best time to visit is Spring and Autumn, between April and June and again from September to late October when days are dry and temperatures warm. Winters can be bitterly cold and summers dry and extremely hot. The Pamirs in Tajikistan are best visited between mid-June and late September to avoid snow-bound roads.
Paul has been named Conde Nast Traveller’s chosen specialist for travel to Central Asia and the Silk Route. Paul joined the Steppes team in 1994, already having travelled the length and breadth of Central Asia. He is rightly regarded as one of the top specialists for the area, regularly travelling the Chinese Silk Route and visiting the ‘Stans’ including the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan.