The Silk Road, the trans-Asian trade network linking the Mediterranean with Eastern China, is not one road but many. It has captured and captivated the Western imagination and increasingly U.S. visitors with images of fabled cities, exotic peoples and awe-inspiring mountains and deserts.
Mir Corporation has been plying the Silk Road for 27 years, introducing destinations far from the familiar, including this year’s new 18-day Mongolia to Kyrgystan: Lands of the Last Nomads, which puts explorers “in steppe” with nomadic cultures, or the 18-day The Pamir Highway, with a singular departure on Aug. 5 along the Silk Road less traveled from Kyrgystan to Tajikistan.
According to company v.p. Annie Lucas, the top-selling group tour is its classic silk road survey, the 21-day Journey Through Central Asia: The Five ‘Stans, with departures monthly August through October and priced at $7,295 pp dbl. But actually, she says, “the tour that sells out every year is the 10-day Essential Iran, one of Mir’s classic independent tours that are also offered to each of the Stans—Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. These tours are designed for travelers who really want to understand and enjoy a country in-depth.”
Re-introducing an all-Uzbekistan tour program in 2014 is General Tours World Traveler. “We used to offer a 10-day tour, which we put on hold in 2009; however, with many destinations off limits right now in the Middle East, travelers are looking just a bit farther east for discoveries and new horizons. Next year, Uzbekistan, as well as Georgia and Armenia, will be on the General Tours roster of new destinations,” says Bob Drumm, the tour operator’s president.
Also offering an extensive program in this destination marketplace is Silk Road Treasure Tours, whose founder Zulya Rajabova was named top travel specialist to Central Asia by Conde Nast Traveler for 2012. When planning a trip to Uzbekistan last September, our small group of friends felt we couldn’t go wrong with a tour company headed by an Uzbek native daughter who, as a guide in her home country, escorted the likes of Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Lyudmila Putin. And we were right. For 11 days, we covered the Silk Road’s highways and byways in wonderfully comfortable touring vans, accompanied by a lead guide, savvy on his country’s history and traditions, a master craftsman on travel logistics and accommodating everyone’s personal requests and quirks.
The spur in the Silk Road that leads to Uzbekistan has long topped my must-see wish-list. Slightly larger than California, it’s a land-locked country, recovering from years (1924-1991) of being shuttered behind the Iron Curtain and making the transition to independent republic with a president who has ruled from the get-go of independence in a style and spirit more akin to the 14th century despot Tamerlane than George Washington. Yet for the visitor, Uzbekistan is a safe, peaceable kingdom: unbeatable for its treasury of mosques and minarets, and triad of UNESCO World Heritage cities right out of “Arabian Nights”; breads that differ region to region and vodka smooth everywhere; and amazingly friendly people whose smiling faces dazzle with gold-capped teeth. And the country is accessible. Our quartet of friends flew from New York to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, connecting easily to Tashkent, whose airport welcome belies the fine touring treasures ahead: immigration and customs clearance are so chaotically disorganized and so amazingly colorful in local dress that you don’t know whether to cry or laugh.
Taking the easy route to answer “Why Uzbekistan” leads to at least six good reasons not to miss it, listed in order of our visit.
Tashkent—razed to the ground by an earthquake in 1966 and rebuilt to Russian specifications—is certainly no picture-postcard capital. Most visitors use it as a gateway to the World Heritage cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, but I liked it for its broad Eastern-bloc boulevards and parks, ceramic-tiled madrassas (religious schools), interesting museums (don’t miss decorative arts in the Applied Arts Museum), good markets and its “I-could-be-anywhere” but comfortable hotels such as the Dedeman, Palace and InterContinental. The highlight of the Uzbek capital is not above ground but below: the truly magnificent Tashkent metro (the only one in Central Asia). It’s an underground odyssey of 29 stations all ornately designed in the 1970s by prominent Uzbek artists and architects. Rides cost just 30 cents, and foreign visitors have to present a passport. Also, because it seems that it’s considered a military installation no picture taking is allowed. Occasionally, patrolling station attendants are more smartly dressed than an airline hostess—complete with a la mode high heels.
Fly from Tashkent to Urgench, then head into the Kyzyl Kum (Red Sand) desert plains, whose vast sandy landscape offers the company of camels, donkeys and wild horses; whose excavated mounds reveal fascinating fourth century BC to seventh century desert fortresses, partially buried in sand; and whose supreme attraction is an overnight stay at the Ayaz KalaYurt Camp where guests make themselves at home in big round yurt-tents whose walls and floors are gaily decorated with handmade carpets and sherdaks (felt rugs). Bath facilities are in a separate building, and seated on rugs in the master tent, guests pick and choose from a parade of regional food specialties.
To get a preview of why clients must visit Nukus, recommend “The Desert of Forbidden Art,” a 2010 documentary highlighting the incredible story of how renegade art collector Igor Savitsky saved from destruction a treasure trove of Soviet avant-garde art deemed decadent and bourgeois by the Stalin regime. Between 1957 and 1966, he shipped thousands of paintings by rail from Russia and stashed them around the desolate desert town of Nukus, with the dogged assistance of his friend Marinika Babanazarova. She is now director of the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art, and she was our guide during one fabulous tour of the legendary Savitsky Collection, part of which covers the walls with the vivid and expressionist paintings that make up the world’s second-largest collection of Russian avant-garde art. Savitsky also collected artifacts of the steppe that presents one of the largest assemblages of archaeological objects, folk art, and applied and contemporary art originating in Central Asia.
In the sixth century, the fortressed walls and waters of Khelvak Well made Khiva a popular Silk Road rest stop; by the 17th century, it had become a center of the Persian slave trade. Today, Khiva is the most remote and intact of Central Asia’s Silk Road cities; its Ichan-Kala architectural complex showcasing an outdoor museum of homogenous Islamic architecture. For me, Khiva was stunning, but its walled-city charms compromised by a suffocating trade in tourist crafts. However, follow the narrow streets, past historic buildings with heavy carved doors, to find an outdoor haberdashery displaying the ultimate purchase: a shaggy, sheep-scented Turkman hat. We stayed at the fine 34-room Malika Khiva, well-located just outside the west gate and nicely priced at $80 dbl with breakfast; the hotel’s garden restaurant dishes up delicious caday manti (pumpkin dumplings).
Bukhara—the most complete example of a medieval city in Central Asia, says UNESCO—is captivating. Unlike Khiva and Samarkand, it is more of a living place, yet packed with monumental treasures. Sacked over the centuries by the Persians and Mongols, Alexander the Great and Ghengis Khan (who razed everything but the stupendous Kalon Minaret, in its day the tallest building on earth), Bukhara by the 16th century had rebuilt itself into almost the holiest city in the world cluttered with turquoise domes of mosques and madrassas. Among my favorites is the Ismael Samani Mausoleum, the oldest, best preserved and most original building in Bukhara and the Poi Kalon Ensemble, a vast square embracing the brilliantly tiled Mir-i-Arab Madrassah and Kalon Juma Mosque.
Also still standing in the Old City are three of the original dome-covered bazaars called toks. Here, among the tea-sipping sellers of hats, silks, carpets, puppets or jewelry, visitors may unearth the perfect buy in silk textiles in exquisite colors and texture, beautiful carpets, gold embroideries and interesting jewelry. For those with lots of sum (Uzbek currency) in their pockets, recommend they duck into the Minzifa Boutique whose inventory of traditional rugs, ikat textiles, antique jewelry and more is an education in fine craftsmanship and tradition. The shop (in the part of the bazaar called the skullcaps dome) is located near the 34-room Malika Bukhara, a hospitable place whose most spacious rooms are on the first floor; rooms have air conditioner, big bath and shower, minibar, and TV.
Now that people are allowed to run their own businesses, there are B&Bs cropping up all over Uzbekistan, but some of the best are located in Bukhara. The prettiest and probably the priciest ($80 dbl, breakfast included) is the family-owned and hands-on managed Sasha & Son, occupying a Jewish merchant’s 16th century house that was renovated and refurbished in 1996. Well located, this boutique property has 18 gorgeous rooms decorated Bukhara-style by local craftsmen and painters and fitted with air conditioner, minibar and satellite TV. Public spaces include a restaurant, traditional courtyard and small garden. The well-located Sasha is an easy walk to a touristy and a really fun evening out with dinner and a show held in a large courtyard and combining folklore dancers, singers and custom-designed fashions.
The mosaic-sheathed buildings of Samarkand are even more monumental than Bukhara’s; this, after all, was the wealthiest and most important city on the Central Asian Silk Road for 2,500 years. For centuries, it was a center of culture, science and crafts, and an imperial capital of the legendary Tamerlane, sheep rustler turned psychotic ruler and empire builder. During his reign in the 14th century, he conquered Iraq, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Mesopotamia, Georgia, Syria, Turkey and Egypt—killing hundreds of thousands along the way. His palace no longer exists, but his mausoleum is a landmark, to which groups of Uzbek tourists come to pay homage and to pray, joined by brides and grooms in full white wedding dresses and tuxedos who come for pre-nuptial photo shoots.
Samarkand’s crowning glory is the Registan, bordered on three sides by Islamic buildings of the highest quality, aglow with a grand complex of exquisite mosques and madrassas whose decorative detail—characteristic turquoise, dark blue and cream-colored and gold tiling—is just plan extraordinary. Another Tamerlane monolith is the awe-inspiring Bibi Khanum Mosque, one of the largest in the world and built with the proceeds of his conquest of Delhi in 1398. And one of the most amazing ensembles of Islamic architecture is the Shah-I-Zinda, a necropolis of mausoleums celebrating ceramic art; no two mausoleums are the same.
But, of course, Samarkand offers less-monumental things to see and do: tour the carpet-making process at Samarkand Bukhara Silk Carpets; tour the Samarkand Handmade Paper Centre, where a watermill pounds the mulberry pulp to the naturally pink rough paper, a centuries-old process; join a rigorous wine-tasting in one of Uzbekistan’s oldest wineries; spend an hour in the bustling market, snacking on dried apricots and sweets; and break for a good plov meal at the Besh Chinaar chaikhana (teahouse).
hit the rails
Following the Silk Road back to the capital, we exchange a 5-hour drive from Samarkand to Tashkent for Uzbekistan Railways’ spiffy 2-hour Sharq Express train to Tashkent. A similar service links Samarkand and Tashkent. Aboard high-speed cars and engines purchased from the Spanish rail company Talgo, you’ll find comfy cars with big windows, airplane-style seating, attendant services, and an onboard dining car.
get the facts
Visas: In addition to a passport (valid for six months after arrival date in Uzbekistan), clients need a visa application form, copy of the passport photo page, one passport-size photo, and visa fee of $160 for visa processing within 10 working days.
Best time to go: March through May; August through November.
Funny money: You don’t get far in Uzbekistan with credit/debit cards. Before leaving the U.S., clients will need to withdraw from the bank lots of dollars—clean, crisp, no rips no wrinkles—to be traded on arrival for sum, the Uzbek money that trades at 2000 sum (bank rate) to 2600 sum (money changer rate). With the largest sum bill (1,000 ) retailing at less than 50 cents, travelers find themselves walking around with a brick-size wad of money when changing more than $100. U.S. dollars are not technically legal, but often accepted in stores or bazaars, as well as guide tips.
Shopping: Uzbekistan is particularly famous for its sumptuous suzani, the finely embroidered tapestries and textiles that Uzbek women have designed and created for hundreds of years; brilliant quilted, tassled, beaded and embroidered caps; and ikat (a dye process that produces patterns of melting colors) fabrics fashioned into fabulous robes. Major cities have the best shops and bazaars; however, the most famous country bazaar is the Urgut market, held on Sunday 40 miles from Samarkand—textiles and ornaments of the Silk Road mix with plastic wares and synthetic clothing from China.
Dining: Slow cooked meats and stews are the hallmark of Uzbek cooking. Plov is the national dish, the basics being rice, carrots, onions and mutton, with recipes varying from region to region. I liked the tasty boiled dumplings stuffed with meat and hearty lagman soup with meat, vegetable, spices and pasta. Traditional breads baked in tandoors (clay ovens) are excellent, as is the thick kefir drinking yogurt and choice fresh fruit. And in Uzbekistan, you’re never far from a glass of tea, Central Asia’s staple drink.
Photography: Again, Uzbekistan amazes. In this Moslem country (mostly Sunni), the traveler easily takes pictures of almost everything, almost anywhere (except transportation terminals), but most specifically of the people, who come rushing over to see what you have taken, then want you to pose with them for their own cameras. It’s polite to ask before taking a photo; I was never turned down.
Archived related articles (available on recommend.com/magazine/issue-archive):
General Tours World Traveler: (800) 221-2216; generaltours.com or generaltours.com/Rewards/Login.aspx (travel agent login)
Mir Corporation: (800) 424-7289; mircorp.com
Sasha & Son:sashasonhotels.com
Silk Road Treasure Tours: (888) 745-7670; silkroadtreasuretours.com or silkroadtreasuretours.com/travel-agents