In 2014, Registan Square in Samarkand will host Sharq Taronalari, an international music festival. // © 2014 Thinkstock
Feature image (above): Itchan Kala was once a powerful castle in Khiva and is now a protected World Heritage Site. // © 2014 Thinkstock
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“Why would someone want to travel to Uzbekistan?”
My city guide asked this rhetorical question during dinner on my last night in Tashkent. He went on to explain: “Only two reasons: its history and more than 4,000 architectural monuments — many of which have been restored to their original glory.”
During my discovery of the Republic of Uzbekistan, I found more reasons to visit the country, including its fascinating customs, its way of life and its ancient turquoise domes. The country is an alluring “new” Silk Road adventure destination for the rapidly-growing number of intrepid world travelers seeking something out of the ordinary.
Though I was traveling independently, US-based Silk Road Treasure Tours arranged my trip through Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.
The History and Politics of Uzbekistan
Up until approximately 22 years ago, Uzbekistan (which is slightly larger than California) was a Communist republic under the repressive Soviet Union, as were its four Central Asian neighbors of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, collectively known as the “Five Stans.”
Since independence, the secular government of Uzbekistan under Islam Karimov, its lifelong autocratic leader, has been experiencing challenging economic and cultural changes geared toward increasing tourism. To promote political stability, under the rhetoric of thwarting terrorism or anti-state disturbances, Uzbek authorities maintain highly aggressive security measures.
“Security is our government’s number one goal, both for its citizens and tourists,” said Hushed Narimov, my private guide, as we were seated on the comfortable new high-speed train ride from Tashkent to Samarkand.
Narimov’s reassuring words helped me enjoy my 12-day journey of Uzbekistan’s four major cities.
The Uzbek capital of Tashkent is a vibrant large city, increasingly becoming known for its unique cosmopolitan lifestyle. In 1966, it was devastated by an earthquake that allowed the Soviet designers free reign to rebuild the city with plenty of monuments, fountains, open public spaces and wide boulevards bordered by towering trees.
Visitors should take a ride on Tashkent’s Russian-built underground metro system called the Tashkent Metro. There are 29 stations in total, each with unique architectural details such as beautiful chandeliers, ceramic and enamel artwork.
Tashkent has a surprisingly rich cultural scene. The State Opera and Ballet’s impressive concert hall, for example, offers many excellent productions. Meanwhile, Chorsu Bazaar, located in the center of Tashkent, is one of the largest markets in Central Asia. There, I first enjoyed the country’s delicious national dish of “plov,” a savory mixture of lamb, shaved carrots and onions, with a sprinkling of raisins and black peppercorns atop a mound of rice. Super-fresh salads of tomatoes, beets, carrots and cucumbers also accompanied every meal.
In 1370, Central Asia conqueror Tamerlane (more properly known as Timur) rebuilt the ancient city of Samarkand, transforming it into the magnificent capital of his Silk Road empire and gathering the most talented scientists, architects, artist and poets.
The Registan, the city’s massive central public square, was once a majestic medieval commercial center that housed three of the world’s oldest and most remarkable madrassas (Arabic for school). No longer functioning as institutes of learning, the madrassas now contain artisanal workshops that sell authentic goods, from expensive silks and striking ceramics to miniatures on Samarkand paper.
In 2015, a grand biennial international music festival called Sharq Taronalari will be held in Registan Square. It is one of Central Asia’s most exciting events, in which talented musicians, composers, performers and musicologists from all over the world come to represent their cultures.
After bumping along a barren desert road all day, it was sizzling hot when we arrived in Bukhara. My large modern hotel (one of many that are not yet tourist-oriented) was not as charming as some of the boutique hotels that had been converted from former merchants’ houses. Equally disappointing was the nightly musical folklore and fashion show provided for the tour bus crowd.
But then, I discovered how fascinating Bukhara can be at night. In Lyabi-Hauz Square, the magically-illuminated heart of the town, everyone gathered to enjoy the gentle breeze and enchanting live music. Families sat eating ice cream, kids played and ducks paddled around the fountains in the cool green pool.
My guide and I got an early start the next morning to explore the bazaar, a shopper’s paradise full of handicrafts that had been sold for generations. Then, while exploring the city’s many holy places, I had a rare opportunity to discreetly listen to madrassa students attempting to follow the lead of their mullah (a Muslim man or woman who is educated in Islamic theology and sacred law) while chanting from the Quran.
Khiva is a maze of alleyways, lined with brown mud huts and surrounded by a high brick wall and four corner gates that lead into an ancient city that seems frozen in time.
Workshops abound to teach the crafts that were suppressed during Soviet rule. Holy sites such as the Pahlavan Mahmud Mausoleum make the city a major pilgrimage site. Near Itchan Kala, once a powerful castle, there’s a former madrassa converted into a majestic accommodation for visitors from afar called the Orient Star Khiva Hotel.
It’s interesting to walk these back streets in the early morning as people go about their daily business and women diligently scrub their humble entryways to “please the angels,” I was told. At night, lights and shadows make Khiva mystical. I felt quite safe aimlessly wandering through the narrow streets after dark, knowing there would always be a friendly child to show me the way back to my hotel nearby.
I would return home to the 21st century the next morning, sad to be leaving this fairytale land of madrassas, mosques and minarets.