The third time’s the charm… It was certainly true for us when we finally made it to Uzbekistan on the third try and were charmed beyond all expectations.
What with Covid and Russian war in Ukraine our plans to travel to Central Asia kept getting thwarted. When we finally landed at the little, never-heard-of-before airport of Urgench with a big welcome sign and flowers planted, we knew it was going to be worth it.
It makes much sense to start one’s exploration with a flight into western Uzbekistan, first visiting Khiva,
the smallest of the three Silk Road cities and then move eastward by train to Bukhara and Samarkand, ending up in the capital of Tashkent. It is quite convenient, easy, inexpensive, and comfortable to travel by train and it makes travel independently very doable.
It made even more sense for me to start in Khiva as I found out through the Internet grapevine there will be a big Lazghi Khorezm Music Festival in Khiva so I tried to time our stay to attend. In the end, the start date of the festival got moved at the last moment, but we still got to see the rehearsals and avoid the crowds and the dignitaries.
The dancers, most of them very young, and all beautiful, brought a new dimension and pep to the old Ichan Kala (Inner Fortress).
I took the lessons from my last photographic expedition and boldly approached the dancers for portraits.
When not chasing beautiful girls I accompanied handsome men
on the lively streets and up the stairs to rooftop terraces and inside ornate buildings.
While we traveled independently and made all arrangements by ourselves we were happy to hire guides in each of the three Silk Road cities and their knowledge and even more personal stories and insights really enriched our understanding of history and contemporary life of the Uzbek people. We are always happy to invite our guides to lunch and if at all possible their families to dinner. Thus we spent the very first evening in Uzbekistan in the company of Islom’s lovely wife and son Akbar, the apple of his father’s eye.
We waited until sundown as it was still Ramadan and while not at all extremist in their religion most people in Uzbekistan fast during the holy month. We were surprised how secular the society seemed otherwise and we didn’t see many head coverings, let alone head to toe wraps.
I did take the opportunity to try on an antique traditional burqa.
Most of the girls nowadays are not keen on hiding their faces or their hair. And what luscious hair they have…
And their faces are exceedingly lovely, too.
Easily one can be transported back in time to a wedding of a young bride.
Khiva is very well preserved, and the old town retains more than 50 historic monuments and 250 old houses, but they are all in a compact space so a day is quite sufficient for meandering at leisure down the old streets, many festooned by stalls with colorful local handicrafts and souvenirs. In the evening the monuments are lit up and children of all ages are out in force playing until late. Invariably we get asked the same questions when embarking on some of our trips to off the beaten path destinations if it is safe.
Yes, it is actually liberating to walk around at night in a city like Khiva and see families out strolling and grandmas and grandpas sitting outside their homes chatting. Offering a polite Salam Alaykum will bring a smile and a return blessing of peace and often an invitation to tea. Which can easily snowball into dinner and an offer to spend the night, such is the warmth and hospitality of people here.
We decided to take a ride further west into autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan. With Islom at the wheel we took a day to take a peek at some of the ancient desert qalas. There are remnants of about 100 fortresses (used as protection against nomadic raids) and the oldest is 2,500 years old. They were quite effective until Gengis Khan’s swooped in.
We met only two other human visitors but delighted in a chance encounter with a whole herd of camels, who, like Fata Morgana appeared on the road accompanied by a very non traditionally looking young herder.
As they systematically chewed on the spring greenery we discussed the finer points of camels and dromedaries (=single-humped camels).
Turns out that Islom spent his university years in Nukus, the capital of the republic and worked at the hotel we have incidentally booked. So we had a most warm welcome by the owner and a tour of their family collections. But it was the collections in the Savitsky Museum that was the real reason we came. A private tour of that so called “Louvre of the Steppe” was phenomenal. It holds 90,000 items from archaeological objects and antiquities to cutting-edge contemporary Soviet art collected by one eccentric Igor Savitsky. Many pieces were by communist prosecuted artists and their legacy was saved in these dusty, half-forgotten far reaches of USSR.
Having an insatiable interest in textiles and ethnography I was ecstatic to find that my museum guide also knew everything about the local Karakalpak clothing, jewelry, and traditions. In perfect English, nonetheless. For a fraction of the cost in the West. We feel so fortunate to be able to do this on our far-flung travels, as we certainly can’t afford a private guide at the Louvre or the Met.
Talk about textiles. I was in a daze most of the days as colorful textiles were everywhere in Uzbekistan. Two unique Uzbek textiles – suzani and ikat are still produced here just like in the ancient times when caravans carried them on the Silk Road.
The technical skill and the lively combinations of colors and patterns are overwhelming. Not one to sport psychedelic bright colors I wanted to have all of them, from little hats,
worn proudly by the locals and all school children,
to time-consuming tablecloths
to giant museum masterpieces that could never fit into our home.
Bewitched I lusted indiscriminately after magnificent hand embroidered double sided ikat coats, (called a chapan or bathrobe), in the past as today representing the social status and wealth of its owner.
In the end I got my chance (and a measure of peace) to wear some chapans for a fun photoshoot at one of the most beautiful hotels we stayed at.
The Minzifa was in our second Silk Road city – Bukhara and it was just a fairytale setting transporting travellers into the past and traditional palaces of rich merchants. Part of it actually was an old restored building and part a modern hotel decorated in traditional style with local craftsmen carving wood and painting detailed traditional flower scenes on the walls.
We are no luxury craving travel couple, but we surely can appreciate comfort and beauty and even more so when it is so incredibly affordable. Uzbekistan is a fantastic country for independent travelers because of the well developed tourist infrastructure. A plethora of accommodations and eating establishments is surprising and at this post Covid time they were pretty much empty. We are no big foodies and we eat so we can live and travel, not live and travel to eat in trendy restaurants. But it is nice to enjoy a good meal and never get stomach upsets on the road.
As expected in Central Asian cuisine there was a lot of meat, mostly beef and some lamb on the menu. The meat was of really great quality, even in sidewalk eateries or by the side of the road. Shashliks and kebabs were everywhere but so were different kinds of soups and steamed dumplings and fried somsas. A bottle of beer is a big bonus!
Even though we were traveling during Ramadan time restaurants were open during the day. They really came to life in the evenings towards the end of the holiday with big family gatherings to brake the fast together and celebrate. Well, often it was guys and gals in separate areas like here:
We have a tendency to hire women guides when possible as we find they are much more able and willing to answer intimate questions about life and social mores. We really lucked out with our Bukhara guide Guljon who explained much about family life in Uzbekistan.
She was a modern, educated, hard-working, income-generating woman, yet she still had to adhere to tradition by living with (and serving hand and foot) her in-laws including getting up before 4 am every morning to prepare and serve food before the start of fasting. In Uzbekistan bride always moves in with her husband’s parents and has to ask permission of her husband and in his absence her father in law to visit her own family. Her marriage as that of her female friends and family members was arranged by her parents though she was allowed to meet her husband face to face before and agree to the marriage.
She understood our interests well and took pains to get us to plenty of craft shops and food markets between must-see monuments.
Going to local food markets (or in the absence of those even to supermarkets) gives a foreigner another insight into local culture. And great opportunities for interesting photography.
We were not big fans of Uzbeki bread as it was quite hard but liked fresh pastries, savory and sweet.
Bukhara is much bigger and much more spread out than Khiva so having someone know the way around from one end to the other to hit the best of the monuments is very helpful. As it was getting unexpectedly quite hot we made an agreement to jump in a taxi instead of walking as much as possible. There is a kind of Uzbeki Uber service called Yandex and with the application, it was easy and cheap to catch a ride.
What is also helpful is that a guide knows where great vantage points are to see something from a different perspective.
And soon on fashion Instagram. 😉
While big blue domed mosques are impressive, like gothic cathedrals they can start getting a bit jumbled up in one’s head. It is the smaller architectural buildings that we cherish from Bukhara.
This humble brick building – a Samanid Mausoleum was more than impressive as it was build in the 10th century and shows the genius of the early architects able to put a round cupola on a square base. As it was covered by sand and silt it was the only structure besides the Kalon minaret left after Gengis Khan’s siege and sack of Bukhara in early 13th century. A national hero of Mongolia or a fearsome destroyer and murderer?
Close by we came across another small building with interesting (hi)story. Chashma Ayub (=Job’s Spring) mausoleum is where allegedly Prophet Job struck the ground with his staff and healing water sprang up to end the drought. One can still drink the water.
The biggest monument in Bukhara is the Ark Fortress, a military structure also occupied by various royal courts.
One of frequently waxed lyrical about sights is Lyabi Hauz Square is centred on 17th century artificial reservoir (a hauz in Persian).
We passed it often at all times of day as our hotel was close by and we were totally underwhelmed by it as well as by the chaikana (restaurant) and nearby coffee shop that was supposed to serve the best (and most expensive) coffee.
We did like the whimsical bronze sculpture of the legendary folk hero Khoja Nasreddin Efendi nearby.
And now it is time to jump on the fast train to Samarkand.
All aboard and see you in Uzbekistan Silk Road Splendors Part II.