Long overlooked by travellers, land locked Uzbekistan in the heart of Central Asia has been the epicentre for many civilisations, migrations and conquerors. This former Soviet republic is a land of thriving bazaars and friendly people. Sitting strategically on the crossroads of the ancient Silk Road, it is steeped in traditions that stretch back through the centuries. It is home to three of the oldest and most architecturally impressive cities of the Silk Road – Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva – each showcasing some of the best surviving Islamic buildings anywhere in the world. They offer a glimpse into the country’s glittering past with their magnificent mosques, minarets, madrasas and mausoleums adorned with intricate turquoise tiles displaying hypnotic patterns shimmering in the heat. The Silk Road’s commercial, artistic, architectural, spiritual and cultural influences are still reflected in present-day Uzbekistan, with the ancient techniques of silk production, carpet weaving and colourful ceramic production still prevalent. For wildlife, excursions to the steppes and mountains of Uzbekistan allow travellers to see gazelles, lynx, mountain sheep and even snow leopards.
Post-Soviet Tashkent is the most cosmopolitan city in Uzbekistan, where old meets new. As the gateway to the nation’s treasured cities, visitors can explore the old city and its madrasahs, which sit alongside modern squares, museums and Soviet-style buildings such as the National Theatre of Opera and Ballet.
Synonymous with the Silk Road, Samarkand is a treasure trove of breathtaking intricate Islamic design and beautiful turquoise and emerald tiled architecture. Dating back to the 7th century, the famous UNESCO World Heritage Listed Registan complex with its three stunning madrassahs was the heart of ancient Samarkand. At the crossroads of world cultures, trade and intellectual developments, it came to prominence during the Timurid period of the 14th and 15th centuries, often considered the city’s golden age. Other architectural highlights include Bibi-Khanum Mosque, the Shakhi-Zinda compound, with its elaborately decorated tombs, the Gur-Emir ensemble and Ulugh-Beg’s Observatory, a scholar whose discoveries in mathematics and astronomy have been proven accurate by modern science.
One of the oldest cities in Central Asia, Shakhrisabz is surrounded by fertile vineyards and orchards and is best known for being the birthplace of Timur. Whilst the extensive architectural restoration experienced by Samarkand has not yet occurred at Shakhrisabz, the magnificence of its grand, yet aging buildings is perhaps more evocative of Uzbekistan’s history. The sights of Shakhrisabz are somewhat off the tourist track but are frequented by the locals, making it a more authentic experience. Travellers can visit the ruins of Ak Saray Palace, with its dramatic entrance portals and which took over 25 years to build, Kok Gumbaz Mosque and the Mausoleum of Sheikh Shamsedin Kulyal.
A 1.5 hour high speed train from Samarkand takes you to Bukhara, one of Central Asia’s holiest cities with a skyline peppered with dozens of bright azure, onion-shaped domes and madrasahs. Once an important trading post, Bukhara is arguably the most accurate example of an ancient Islamic city in Central Asia. Its most famous sites include the Summer Palace of the Bukharan Emirs, the Bolo Khauz Mosque, the stunning 10th century tomb of Ismail Samani and the citadel with its mud brick walls.sia.
The walled city of Khiva is an atmospheric UNESCO World Heritage Listed site and one of the old cities of ancient Khorezm. Situated in the heart of the desert, Khiva is another masterpiece of exceptional Islamic architecture. Visitors can explore numerous building complexes including madrasahs, mosques, palaces and the bazaar.
Nukus, which grew from a small settlement, is now one of the larger Uzbek cities. Its remoteness made Nukus an ideal host to the Red Army’s Chemical Research Institute and despite Stalin’s best efforts to eliminate all non-Soviet art from this period, the Art Museum houses a collection of modern Russian and Uzbek art from 1918 to 1935. Tragically, many of the artists from this period were sent to the gulag yet Nukus remains home to a large collection of avant-garde Soviet art, much of it smuggled out of Russia in the 1930’s. The State Museum also has artefacts salvaged from archaeological investigations as well as traditional jewellery, costumes and musical instruments.
Heading three hours north from Nukus, across barren land and at the edge of the country, lies the town of Moynaq . Once the largest port town on the Aral Sea, it now sits in the desert over 95km from the sea. The Aral Sea, previously one of the four largest lakes in the world, shrunk by more than 90% following numerous large Soviet projects and farming activities that pumped out the majority of its water. Driving across the dried lake bed, what remains is a desolate lunar landscape of sand dunes with a graveyard of ships. Moynaq is perhaps the best starting point for exploring the nearby Aral Sea whether it is to admire the beautiful landscape, or to witness one of the worst environmental disasters in Central Asia.
Fast Facts on countries the CENTUM+ team have explored so far ...