Aug 7th - 25th, 2023

This is my blog post about an amazing trip through the historic and beautiful country of Uzbekistan.

I had a guided group trip booked with Intrepid Travel, but I arrived in Tashkent three days before the start of the trip, so I had some time to explore this city by myself. I had flown in on an Uzbekistan Air flight from Istanbul. The immigration formalities at the airport where a bit confusing at first. European citizens can get an e-visa in advance, but you can't just walk through immigration with your print-out. They directed me to a separate room, where I handed over my passport and then had to wait a bit before they took my fingerprints and gave me my official e-visa, which then allowed me to just walk past the immigration counters.

I started the next morning with a city walking tour. We met at Timur Square, which is a large green park with a mounted monument of Timur in the center.

Timur (1336 to 1405), better known as Tamerlane in the West, was the Turco-Mongol conqueror who founded the Timurid Empire, which at its peak stretched from Turkey to India including all of Central Asia and modern day Iran. Here in Uzbekistan, Timur is considered a great national hero, for not only being an undefeated military leader, but also a patron of the arts and sciences. In many other countries he is more remembered as a genocidal tyrant, whose military campaigns probably killed a larger proportion of the world's population (about 5%) than even Genghis Khan or the two World Wars managed to accomplish.

Tashkent is a large and modern city with wide boulevards, large monumental buildings and many city parks. Despite the fact that Tashkent once was an important city on the Silk Road, it does not have many historical buildings left. Most of the Old City was destroyed in a devastating 1966 earthquake. Although only a modest 5.2 quake, the epicenter was located right in the city center, and the quake therefore caused massive destruction, such that the Soviet leadership for a brief moment even contemplated abandoning the city and rebuilding it somewhere else. Over the subsequent years much of the city was rebuilt in typical Soviet style brutalist architecture. The 1970s Uzbekistan Hotel is a typical example of that style. This used to be the main hotel, where foreigners stayed during Soviet times. Naturally the KGB had every room in the hotel bugged.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and Uzbekistan's independence in 1991, many new, modern and slightly over-the-top buildings were constructed in the capital. A prime example is located right next to the Uzbekistan hotel. The large exhibition center, completed in 2009 and clad in white marble from Greece, is the most expensive building in the country, at a total cost of half a billion dollars. Apparently they even imported German soil for the gardens around it.

A great way to get around this huge city is the metro, which is very good, easy to figure out and efficient. It only has three lines, so it does not take you everywhere you want to go, but it is incredibly cheap - a single ride costs 1,400 Som which is about 12 US cents. During rush hour it can get very crowded, but it's very safe and I noticed that men always stand up and offer their seats if they see a woman standing. Even if you don't need to get anywhere, it is worth taking the metro just to see some of the beautiful Soviet style underground stations.

The Amir Timur Museum is an impressive dome shaped building, constructed in the 1990s. The murals and the beautiful ceiling in the center make the visit worth it. The museum itself is not very good. It's more of a shrine celebrating the Timurides. It has a few historical items, and some nice models of buildings in Samarkand, but there are no signs with explanations or historical information.

The country has experienced a significant opening in 2018, when a new government came into power. Since then a great deal of foreign investment has come in and many new buildings including some large skyscrapers are now being constructed. With a population of 37 million, Uzbekistan is the largest country by population in Central Asia. It also has a very young population. While certainly not anywhere near a full democracy, Uzbekistan is considered the most democratic among the Central Asian countries. At the moment the government seems to be steering the country towards more openness and economic liberalization. People here seem to be quite positive about the future of the country. On the other hand, the president has recently extended his term to allow him to stay in power until 2040. So it remains to be seen if he can keep up the reform drive.

Uzbekistan is still very much aligned with Russia. Millions of Uzbeks work in Russia and send back billions in remittances every year. Russia is also their biggest trading partner. So the country is very much economically dependent on Russia, but generally tries to stay neutral when it comes to geopolitical issues.

On my second day in Tashkent I took the metro into the old town. From the Chorsu metro stop it is a twenty minute walk to the very impressive Hazrati Imam Complex, which is named after and built near the tomb of the first Imam of Tashkent and one of the earliest Islamic scholars and preachers in Central Asia. The complex includes several madrasas and mosques. Among them is the large and modern Hazriti Imam Jome mosque which was built in 2007. Non-Muslims are allowed to enter the mosque outside of prayer times.

The complex also includes a small museum with contains the oldest surviving Koran in the world. Written on deer skin, the manuscript was created in 644 only 19 years after the death of Muhammad. On the opposite side of the complex is the Baroqxon Madrasa, which was built in the first half of the 16th century and now houses handicraft and souvenir shops.

On my way back I also passed by the beautiful Kukeldash Madrasa dating back to the late 16th century. I got there right during prayer time, so I couldn't see the inside.

On the last evening before meeting my travel group, I had my first horse meat here. Plov is the national dish of Uzbekistan. It is a fairly greasy, but delicious rice dish, where the rice is cooked in a stew of vegetables and meat, which can be horse, chicken or lamb. Every city in the county has their own slight variation of Plov, which they all deem to be the best in the country.

I had another day in Tashkent at the end of the trip together with my Intrepid group, where went back to the old town and visited the Chorsu Bazaar. One of the largest bazaars in the world, it is a labyrinth of indoor and outdoor stalls, that sell absolutely anything you can imagine, and many things you couldn't. The meat market located under the main dome is a huge bustling space.

On our day off at the end of the tour I also got a chance to walk a bit outside of the center and came across the beautiful Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin. The elegant turquoise and white church was completed in 1871.

After meeting my group of 10 fellow travelers and our local guide Farkhod the night before, we all left Tashkent in the early morning via high-speed train for the 4 hour ride to Bukhara.

The Tashkent to Bukhara high speed train line was opened in 2016, and it uses Spanish built trains. With speeds up to 230 km/h through mostly flat agricultural and desert landscapes we reached Bukhara just before noon, where we were picked up by bus to take us into the city. After check-in at the hotel and a quick break for lunch, we started our first city tour. Our very nice hotel was located right near the Labi-havz complex, which used to be the historical center of the city. There are several elaborately decorated madrasas surrounding this beautiful pool.

Considered one of the jewels of Central Asia, Bukhara is an ancient city, whose origins date back to at least the 6th century BC, when it was part of the Persian Empire. The city has always been an important trading hub along the Silk Road, but it reached its zenith as the capital of the Samanid Empire in the 9th and 10th century AD, when it became a center for Islamic scholarship and arts. Bukhara went into steep decline after being devasted by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, but regained its importance under the Timurids in the 14th and 15th centuries, and later with the establishment of the Bukhara Khanate, which lasted from the 16th to the late 18th century. The historic city center, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993, is full of beautiful madrasas, ancient mosques, busy bazaars and towering minarets.

Unlike the rest of the country, where Uzbek is the mother tongue of most people, in Bukhara the primary language is Tajik, which is a dialect of Persian, while Uzbek is spoken only as second language by the majority of the city's 250,000 inhabitants. After walking through the bazaars and narrow streets of the city, we arrived at the highlight and center piece of all the historical buildings in Bukhara - the incredible Kalan Mosque.

Built first in the 12th century, but destroyed by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, the current structure was completed in 1514. The large rectangular central courtyard is surrounded by arched porches, and large domes on either end, all covered in beautiful blue tile works. The whole ensemble was truly among the most stunning monuments I have ever seen.

The only monument int he ensemble left from the 12th century, is the stunning 47 meter high Kalyan minaret, which was constructed in 1127. It has now stood here for almost 900 years, surviving not only the invasion by Ghengis Khan (who was so impressed by it that he order it to remain unharmed), but also bombardment by the Red Army in 1920.

Opposite the Kalan Mosque is the equally beautiful Mir-i-Arab Madrasa, also built in the early 16th century.

The whole ensemble is beautifully lit at night

We ended our first day with an unexpectedly hilarious dinner. Nine of us went out without our guide, and chose a nice local restaurant near the city center. They had no English menus, but with the help of Google translate we ordered three meat platters for the table to share, which we understood were meant to be for about 3 people each. However, something must of gone very wrong with the translation, because what arrived where three enormous plates with mountains of meats, that probably could have fed about 10 people each. I think we would have struggled to finish even one of these platters, but we got three. And just to be save, we had ordered some large starters too. We became quite the attraction in the restaurant, as anyone, who walked past our table, started laughing and pointing at us. We all gave it a good effort, but barely made a dent in the enormous mountains of meat.

Our second day in the city started at the spectacular Ark of Bukhara, which was the fortified citadel and the residence of the rulers of Bukhara, and had been continually occupied from the 5th century up until 1920. It has a number of small museums inside, but the fort is more impressive from the outside than the inside. There is also an old water tower in front of it, which has been converted to a viewing platform and affords great views over the fort and the city behind it.

The huge curved walls of the Ark of Bukhara are one of the iconic images of Central Asia.

This is the nearby Bolo-Haouz Mosque, from the early 18th century, whose unusually high roof is supported by carved and painted wooden columns.

The oldest surviving Muslim structure in Bukhara is the small Ismail Samani Mausoleum. Completed in 905, it is considered a masterpiece of early Islamic architecture, and a rare monument remaining from this period.

The Chor Minor Madrasah with its very unusual four towers is another one of the icons of Bukhara. It is not of particular historic importance though, as it was built in the 19th century by a wealthy Turkmen.

Before leaving Bukhara the next day, I returned for some sunrise pictures at 6:30 in the morning. Seeing the square in front of the Kalan mosque without any tourists gave it an almost eerie feeling.

The only tourists I ran into at this time in the morning, were three other people from my group, who also felt that seeing this amazing place at sunrise was way more valuable than sleeping in.

Bukhara really is an amazing city, which should be on every traveler's lifetime bucket list.

Yurt Camp and Mountain Village
We left Bukhara by bus and headed north towards Nurata. Along the way we visited a traditional pottery workshop in the town of Gijduvon, where eight masters still produce traditional Bukharan pottery. All the processes, from turning the pottery wheels to painting and glazing, are still done manually as they have been for generations.

We continued north along the old Silk Road. The drive took us through endless cotton fields. During Soviet times almost all agriculture in Uzbekistan was focused on cotton. Although cotton production has been reduced since then, due to the enormous use of water required, the country still produces 2 to 3 million tons of cotton a year. Farkhod told us that until fairly recently most students used to spent one month a year every September coming out to the countryside to help in the cotton harvest. However, the new government has now banned the practice of children being used for picking cotton. After another two hours drive we reached the outskirts of the Kyzylkum desert. We turned off the main road and drove into the desert on a dirt path to reach our home for the night, the Yurt Camp 'Sputnik Navoi'.

It was a well set up camp with about 20 yurts, each of them providing space for up to six people. They had basic but decent shower and bathroom facilities, and they cooked very good food for us. I spent the afternoon walking around the dunes, taking pictures. Some of us went on a short camel ride, which I decided to skip, since I've been on camels before and remembered how uncomfortable they can be.

We experienced this beautiful sunset over the desert that evening.

After a nice local dinner they lit a big bonfire and we were listening to traditional Khazak songs, which even inspired some to dance around the campfire.

However, the most amazing part out here deep in the desert at night were the stars. Without any light pollution, we experienced one of the most spectacular night skies I had ever seen. I don't have the equipment or skills to take good pictures of stars, but my fellow traveler and extraordinary photographer Sofie did, and she allowed me to borrow this photo of the milky way she took that night. (Please follower her on Instagram @sofierys_photography for more photos like this).

Even though it got fairly cold in the desert at night (into the low single digits), the yurts were quite warm and comfortable. After a plentiful breakfast of local bread, cheese and meats, we continued our trip by bus east towards the Nuratau Mountains. The drive took about two and half hours through a mostly desert area. We saw the blue color of the huge Aydar Lake on the horizon. Once we turned off the main highway, the road took us steeply into the mountains. The bus couldn't quite get there all the way and we had to walk the last 20 minutes to reach the houses in the small Tajik village, where we would spend the night.

In the afternoon we went on a two hour easy hike further up the very narrow green valley surrounded by dry brown mountains, which reach over 2,000 meters in altitude. There is only a small trickling brook, that gives life to the whole valley. Around 600 people, who are part of 50 Tajik families, live in the small stone houses in a number of villages nestled along the valley.

When we reached the top of the hike we saw some ancient petroglyphs carved in the rocks.

We stayed in a small guest house (called the Yahshigul Guesthouse) in the village. It had four shared rooms, which were fairly small but very comfortable. I slept very well and was woken up by the crow of the rooster. They made a surprisingly extensive breakfast for us. I couldn't figure out how they managed to get so much nice food out of the little kitchen hut. We left after breakfast for the four hour drive to Samarkand.

We arrived in the early afternoon in Samarkand, and were able to check into our rooms, before heading out into town. After a nice lunch in a local restaurant, our first stop was the Gur Emir Mausoleum, which contains the tomb of Timur. The huge and richly decorated structure was built in 1404 to 1405, and is considered an important precursor to later Mughal architecture, including the Taj Mahal.

Samarkand was Timur’s capital and the administrative and commercial center of his huge empire. Much of the looted treasures from his conquests ended up here, and were used to make Samarkand a center for the arts, architecture and sciences. Timur himself didn't have much time to enjoy his splendid capital, as he spent the majority of his life on military campaigns. He died in 1405 at the start of his last campaign, trying to invade and conquer Ming dynasty China. The central hall under the beautiful azure dome is richly decorated in gold and contains the largest piece of jade in the world. Timur's sarcophagus is surrounded by those of two of his sons and two of his grandsons, as well as his teacher and mentor. There is a legend, that Timur's crypt was opened by a Soviet archaeologist in 1941. Apparently he found an inscription inside, which said 'He who opens this will unleash an enemy more fearsome than I'. Two days later, the Soviet Union was attacked by Hitler.

Among many the great cities along the ancient Silk Road, Samarkand has probably always been the most famous and iconic of them all. After the tomb, we visited the heart of this ancient city, and what turned out to be the absolute highlight of this whole trip - the incredible Registan Square.

While I thought that the Kalan Mosque in Bukhara was already among the most extraordinary things I had ever seen, Registan Square took it to a whole nother level. This was truly among the most unbelievable and awe-inspiring sights, I had ever experienced. It is one of those rare places in the world, that leaves you standing in front of it dumbfounded and with your mouth open, thinking "Can this be real?".

The square is framed by three of the most beautiful madrasas, each of which a masterpiece of Islamic art in its own right. The Ulugh Beg Madrasah (1417–1420) on the left is much older than the other two, which are the Sher-Dor Madrasa (1619–1636) on the right and the Tilya-Kori Madrasa (1646–1660) in the center. All three of them have large inner courtyards that are covered in the most intricate tile works.

Some of the people, who work inside the square have found ways to make a little extra cash, by letting tourists climb some of the parts that are not officially open to visitors. We found a man, who for a small fee let us climb the extremely narrow spiral staircase to the top of one of the minarets. There was only space for one person at a time to stick your head out of the roof for a great view of the other two madrasas from above.

The Tilya-Kori Madrasa in the center also includes the main mosque of the ensemble. The interior space under the turquoise dome is covered in the most intricate blue and gold decorations - one most overwhelming sights you'll ever see.

Registan Square may even be more stunning at night, when the three madrasas are lit like this.

Most nights there is a light show, which projects images onto the center madrasa and tells the story of Uzbekistan's and humanity's history. The show is a bit cheesy, but quite entertaining, and seeing the changing colors projected onto these stunning buildings is just amazing.

I of course had to return to Registan Square very early the next morning to take some pictures during sunrise. When I arrived around 6:30 am there was no one else there. The square was still closed, and I got these incredible images of the square without a single person in it.

While I was taking pictures from outside the barrier, suddenly a security guard inside came towards me waving and pointing at me. I first thought I was in trouble and must have done something wrong. But when he got close, he said “Want to come inside? 50,000.” Of course I did. He let me inside the barriers through a side entrance, and discretely took my 50,000 Som (which is about 5 Dollars), and suddenly I found myself inside. I was the only person in the center of Registan Square, when the sun slowly came up and bathed the tiles in this golden light. It was a truly magical experience.

Samarkand is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia. Founded in the 7th century BC as the capital of the Sogdian civilization, it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BC. The city had many different rulers over the subsequent centuries, but it mainly began to flourish after the Arab conquest in the 8th century, when it became an intellectual hub for Islamic arts and sciences. Unlike Bukhara, Samarkand has no historical monuments left from before the 13th century, since Genghis Khan completely razed the city and massacred almost the entire population in 1220. Following this devastation, the city not only recovered but experienced its most significant growth period under Timur and his descendants, in the 14th and 15th century, which is the period during which most of the significant monuments were built. Samarkand is of course also a UNESCO world heritage site.

Our first stop the next morning was a traditional paper mill, where they still produce handmade paper using a 1000 year old process. Paper making once was a very important industry in Samarkand, which used to have hundres of paper mills. In fact, it was here that the first paper was produced outside of China in the 8th century, after two Chinese prisoners revealed the knowledge of how to make paper. Eventually these techniques travelled from Samarkand to the Middle East, and from there to Spain and Europe.

Modern Samarkand is a much bigger and busier city than Bukhara, and it doesn't have the kind of historical city center. The historical sites here are spread out all over the modern city. So we took the bus to our next site, located in the north-east of the city, the necropolis of Sah-i-Zinda. It consists of a series of mausoleums covering a period of 800 years from the 11th to the 19th century. Most of the tombs are covered in beautiful blue tiles on the outside, and some are elaborately decorated on the inside, while others only have plain walls inside. Many of Timur's relatives, important military leaders and clergy are buried here. The holiest of the shrines is built around what according to legend is the resting place of Qutham ibn Abbas, a cousin of the prophet Muhammad.

From here we walked a short distance to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, also known as Timur's mosque. This was once one of the largest and most magnificent mosques in the entire Islamic world. After he returned from his India campaign in 1399, Timur commissioned this huge mosque to further enhance the importance of his capital.

However, due to its unprecedented size and height, and the speed of its construction, the building had significant structural problems from the start and had to be continually reinforced. After restauration works stopped in the 17th century, the mosque fell into disrepair and was only a ruin by the 19th century. In the 1970s during Soviet times, the decision was made to restore this magnificent monument to its former glory. The restauration work is still ongoing.

After another very tasty Plov lunch, I went back to the hotel to rest a bit, since we had another very early wake up call the next day to catch a 6:00 am train back to Tashkent.

After a relaxing day in Tashkent, we said goodbye to our Uzbekistan group and guide, and met our new group for the second part of the trip. Unfortunately, that part of the trip started with a bit of stress, because of a Covid scare. One of the people, who were supposed to continue to Turkmenistan, was feeling quite ill the last couple of days. And, since Turkmenistan at that stage was the last country in the world to test for Covid on arrival, he got a PCR test in Tashkent, which unfortunately came back positive. He decided therefore to not continue the trip, and in order to protect the other people on the trip. I wore a face mask for the next two days, but luckily no one else in the group got infected.

We had an extremely early morning, meeting in the hotel lobby at 3:30 am to get to the airport in time for our 6:00 am flight to Urgench, in the western part of Uzbekistan. The flight took 1.5 hours and we were picked up at the airport for the 1 hour drive to the historical town of Khiva, where we would spend the next two nights.

The old town of Khiva is an incredible city, which is still completely surrounded by enormous city walls. We stayed in a beautiful hotel right in the center of the historic city, which made you feel like you are taken back in time several hundred years, as there are no modern buildings inside the city walls. The inner town of old Khiva, also known as Itchan Kala, with its network of narrow, winding streets and numerous mosques, minarets and madrasas, was the first site in Uzbekistan to be inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list in 1990. We started our first day's guided tour at the somewhat stumpy looking Kalta Minor minaret. The reason for its truncated appearance is that it was designed to be the highest minaret in the world with a final height of 80 meters. But after the Khan, who commissioned it, died, it was never finished and remained a beautifully tiled stump of 29 meters.

We continued to the stunning Juma Mosque, which was built from 1778 to 1782. However, most of the 210 slender wooden columns are much older than the mosque itself, as they were repurposed from various other ancient buildings. Some of the most richly carved single-tree columns are from the 11th century.

Our next stop was the Konya Ark, the 17th century citadel whose western wall is part of the city walls. The Ark used to be the residence as well as the administrative center of the Khan of Khiva. There are several beautiful inner court yards,

and you can get a great view over the old town from the highest point of the citadel.

Khiva is particularly magical at night, when the day tourists are gone and the whole city is lit up beautifully. We had dinner at a rooftop restaurant that night with this view:

The city of Khiva was first established about 1500 years ago, according to archeological evidence, but not much is known about its early history. The city rose in prominence as a trading post over the centuries, particularly from the 16th century onwards when it became the capital of the Khwarezmian state and later of the Khanate of Khiva. During this period, Khiva became a hub for the slave trade, along with being an important way station for caravans that traversed the Silk Road. The city was conquered by the Russians in the late 19th century, which marked the end of the Khanate's sovereignty.

We started our second day at the Tosh Hovli Palace, which was built in the early 19th century and became the residence of the Khan and his family. This palace has the most elaborate tile decorations of any building in Khiva, as well as beautiful interior decorations.

Khiva is also home to Uzbekistan's tallest minaret. The elegant and richly decorated Islom Hoja Minaret, was built in 1908 to 19010 to a height of 57 meters, with the specific aim to exceed the famous Kahlon minaret in Bukhara.

For a small entrance fee you can climb a very narrow, slippery and low-ceiling spiral staircase inside the minaret. It is a bit uncomfortable getting to the top, especially if you are tall, but the views from above make it more than worth it.

The national dress for men in this region used to involve a very large furry hat. They are made of lambswool and are mostly sold to tourists these days, but they seemed to have been almost mandatory attire in the past. There were very strict rules about the height of the hat, you could wear. The Khan, the leader of Khiva, was allowed to have a hat 35 cm in height, the next level ministers got 25 cm, and this continued with shorter hats further down the hierarchy. We went to a museum full of fascinating old photographs, which showed that indeed every man, including workers digging trenches and plowing fields wore these hats even in the middle of summer. Apparently if you did not wear your hat, that signified that you had lost your honor.

While today most men here were western clothes, most of the women, particularely the older generation, wear head scarves and typically very colorful traditional full length dresses or skirts, like these women in a local tour group we saw.

Khiva, like Samarkand and Bukhara, underwent extensive restorations during the last decades. Today the old city has been preserved as a kind of open-air museum, trying to maintain its historical authenticity while accommodating growing numbers of tourists every year. About 3000 people live inside the city walls today. The huge curved mud brick walls are still as imposing and formidable as they been for hundreds of years.

There is one access point where you can climb up to the walls. You just have to find a lady on the street and pay her for it. It's possible to walk on top of the inner part of the wall about halfway around the city. I went up there on our last evening and witnessed a beautiful sunset over the wall.

During these almost two weeks, Uzbekistan has become one of my all time favorite countries in the world. The three beautiful and historic cities along the old Silk Road, Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva, contain some of the most incredible sights I had ever seen, like Registan Square in Samarkand. The people here are very friendly and welcoming. And the country is very safe, easy to get around, and should be a must-see destination for every traveler in the world. The next morning we crossed over the border to Turkmenistan for the second part of my Central Asia adventure.

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