Discovering Uzbekistan of the Silk Road
Even more than the Roman Empire, the Silk Road shaped the world we know today. Weaving from Europe to Asia, Russia to the Subcontinent, and everywhere in between, it was along this network of ancient trading routes that people, ideas, inventions, and goods made their way.
At the centre of the Silk Road and waiting to be discovered is Uzbekistan. It’s quicker and easier than ever before to get there: Uzbekistan Airways also flies directly from London to Tashkent, twice a week (Tuesday and Friday) and it is now visa free for British passport holders (and other EU nationals) so you just turn up and present your passport to enter.
What are the attractions which make Uzbekistan a must-visit destination. As the author of the Bradt Guide to Uzbekistan I’ve been fortunate enough to explore almost every corner of the country. Here are my recommendations of what to see do and experience in Uzbekistan.
The Silk Road Cities
First and foremost are the great Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva which have been inspiring visitors with their architectural masterpieces for centuries. All UNESCO World Heritage these cities are bejewelled with majolica tiles, stained glass, gilded ceilings, and exquisite paintings and carvings.
In Samarkand, tourists typically head straight for the Registan Square which is comprised of three madrassahs (Islamic schools) the earliest of which dates from the 15th century. Each of the structures is highly ornamented, and the facade of the Sher For madrassah depicts strange tigers with human faces upon their backs: they are grotesque and beautiful in equal measure, and clearly challenge the orthodox Islamic view that living creatures should not be depicted in art.
My favourite site in Samarkand however is a 10 minute walk away. It’s called the Shah-i Zinda, and it is an extraordinary necropolis of decorated tombs, some of which are more than 1,000 years old. Each of the mausoleums in the complex is unique and beautiful, and together they will take your breath away.
Termez: off the beaten track
I like to get beyond the beaten track however, and so it’s necessary to leave the charms of the cities behind and head out into the hinterland. Tourists rarely travel as far south as Termez, but as a result they miss out this was one of the great Graeco-Bactrian cities at the time of Alexander the Great and the archaeological discoveries made here are eye-opening.
The most important finds (and well-done displays explaining where they came from) are in Termez Archaeological Museum but it is well worth visiting the open air excavations too. In my view, the most impressive of these is at Kampir Tepe, where you can still walk what remains of the city walls, follow the streets, and enter into homes and shops, even though the last left two millennia ago.
Savitsky Collection in Nukus
Uzbekistan’s is rich without doubt but there’s also a lot to be said for exploring its more contemporary culture. The Savitsky Collection in Nukus (also known as Nukus Art Museum or The State Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan), in the northwestern part of Uzbekistan, has one of the most important collection of avant garde art in the world and the story of how the collection was amassed is the subject of the documentary Desert of Forbidden Art. The museum is undergoing an aggressive expansion programme so more and more works of art will be put on display throughout the year.
Head to the capital, Tashkent
Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, is a hub of culture, too. The glorious Navoi Opera and Ballet Theatre has recently reopened after major renovations and the affordable tickets offer a chance to see world-class classical performances in a remarkable setting.
There are a large number of museums in the city of which the Uzbekistan State Museum of Applied Art and the Fine Arts Museum of Uzbekistan are particularly worth exploring.