With its dramatic desert scenery, incredible architecture and fascinating culture, it’s no wonder Uzbekistan is shaping up to be one of 2019’s hottest travel destinations. Not sure what it’s all about? That’s where we come in. We’ve picked out our top reasons for visiting this beautiful country, from the welcoming people you’ll meet, to the centuries’ worth of history you’ll uncover.
As you read, look out for tips and insider info from Titan traveller Emma – she recently journeyed to Uzbekistan on our Jewel of the Silk Road tour, and has been kind enough to share her experiences with us.
Arabian Nights architecture
Fortresses topped with turquoise domes. Mausoleums that look like something out of ‘Aladdin’. Soaring towers and minarets. The architecture in Uzbekistan is seriously impressive. Palaces, mausoleums, mosques – each building has a defining style. Standouts include Gur-a-Amir Mausoleum in Samarkand and Kuhna Ark fortress in Khiva.
“All of the architecture in Uzbekistan is impressive, from the sheer size to the time-scales it must have taken to create such magnificent artwork, mosaics and tiling. It is amazing that so many of these buildings are still standing today, what with the early attacks from the Turks and Mongols, and the later destruction by the Russians. The Russians actually then turned around and helped restore many of these monuments back to their former glory.
One place where I particularly loved the architecture was Khiva, from the ancient walls and the gigantic minarets, to the Juma Mosque in which each pillar is uniquely carved and tells a different story. It is full of little alleyways – without the help of the local guides we would never have found some of the most interesting places, such as the concubines’ houses and the rooftop terrace with spectacular 360-degree views over the city.”
Make sure you’ve got plenty of memory on your camera – you’ll be snapping endless photos of Uzbekistan’s incredible tilework. From Samarkand to Bukhara to Khiva, everywhere you visit you’ll be met by buildings coated in intricate mosaic tiles. They often come in the most beautiful shades of azure, sapphire and turquoise – and look stunning against a bright-blue Uzbek sky. Some of our favourites include Khiva’s Tosh-Hovli Palace and Pahlavan Mahmud Mausoleum in Samarkand.
“Ulugh Beg Madrasah in Samarkand is a stunning site. There are three madrasahs, Ulugbek, Sherdor and Tilla-Kori, which all face inwards toward Registan square. Two of them almost seem to be a reflection of each other, but on closer inspection you can see that the designs and decoration are altogether different. The three madrasahs were built by two different rulers at different times, with each one trying to outdo what the others had done previously.
The city and these buildings have gone through their ups and downs. Once the Silk Road was established as a major point for trade, Bukhara became more important and Samarkand and the madrasahs became neglected and desolate, battered by severe winters and earthquakes. However the Russians came to the rescue to restore this historical site – thousands of restorers painstakingly pieced together thousands of tiny fragments and resurrected the site to its former glory. When it is lit up at night the square is a site to behold. You can imagine dances, festivities, markets – it really feels like a place where people want to gather, the centre of the community.”
A warm welcome
Uzbekistan is still fairly new on the tourism scene, so locals are usually delighted to see visitors exploring their homeland. Expect a warm welcome, friendly smiles and endless cups of green tea. The fact that tourism is still so new makes an escorted tour a great way to experience the country – we work with expert local guides and suppliers to make sure you see the very best of this fascinating place, and take care of all the logistics so you don’t need to worry about how to get around.
If you’re travelling on your own, we have a dedicated solo tour of Uzbekistan. You’ll travel with like-minded travellers and enjoy the peace of mind that comes with being with a group, yet there are plenty of opportunities for you to do your own thing and enjoy some time exploring at your own pace.
“We were welcomed with big gold-toothed smiles everywhere we went (apparently the more gold teeth you have the richer you are!). The locals were so pleased we had gone to visit their county – they wanted to talk to us and shake our hands. We were as much as a fascination to them as they were to us. I don’t think I have ever been anywhere where tourists were treated like celebrities – I think we were probably the source of Uzbek Facebook entertainment for at least a week.
Many of the meals were at traditional local houses, and we shopped alongside locals at the bazaars and markets. Refreshingly, there is not that much tourism there, so many of the places we were going, locals were too, whether it be to pray, mourn a loved one, gather in the square or go to the local market. It really was an enriching experience.”
Uzbekistan has a vast and varied history. Exploring its ancient cities is the best way to get a feel for it. Khiva, Samarkand and Bukhara all feature on UNESCO’s World Heritage list (and for good reason) – we spend at least two nights in each on our Uzbekistan tour.
Khiva is listed for its walled inner town, Itchan Kala. Silk Road traders would rest up here before crossing the desert to Persia – within the 10-metre-high walls, you’ll discover mosques, caravanserais, markets and mausoleums. Bukhara’s historic centre is noted for being the ‘most complete example of a medieval city in Central Asia’. It was a key stop on the Silk Road, and was a cultural powerhouse for hundreds of years. Samarkand makes the grade for its cultural heritage. Acting as a crossroad between East and West, the city showcases a blend of different cultures, art and architectural styles.
“Initially, I wondered about the number of mosques and mausoleums we were going to visit, but they were all so unique and all had a story to tell. There were ancient sites and modern-day museums, and buildings varied from opulent and rich to partially destroyed and in the process of being restored.”
Uzbek culture is fascinating, and many centuries-old traditions are still going strong today. We aim to highlight some of these traditions throughout the tour. We’ll listen to folk music, see traditional dances and learn about Uzbek customs as we spend time with locals.
“I was surprised with how colourful and glamorous the ladies’ dresses were. Some were thick velvet with intricate embroidery, others were simpler but in beautifully bright colours. We enjoyed storytelling, fashion shows, dancing and music, and many of the meals were at local restaurants, so we were totally immersed in the culture.
Although Uzbekistan is a Muslim country, they take great pride in accepting all religions and all want to live together in harmony – as well as mosques, we were also shown churches and synagogues. We were given exactly the right amount of information regarding their religion, how it has influenced the country and shaped some of the architecture. It was fascinating to see one of a very few original Korans, too.”
In the days of the Silk Road, Uzbek bazaars were filled with traders selling exotic wares – silks, spices, ceramics. Today, you’ll find much of the same – bags of aromatic spices, silk scarves and silk paper, beautifully painted bowls, intricate jewellery. Browse the markets, chat with stallholders, and perhaps pick up a few memorable souvenirs to remember your time in Uzbekistan.
“We bought saffron very cheaply at the market and have used it for several delicious meals since we’ve been home. We also brought back some tomato seeds, having enjoyed eating them so much with our meals. We’ve had a plentiful supply of plum and beef tomatoes which are meaty, sweet and extremely enjoyable!”
A bustling capital city
Tashkent is Uzbekistan’s bustling capital, nestled in the far east of the country. It offers up a very different experience to the desert cities – there are museums, markets, mausoleums and madrasahs to explore, chic cafés to sip tea in and leafy parks to stroll through.
“The metro was a highlight for me – the stunning Russian-influenced architecture and murals were a sight to behold, with each station boasting unique features, materials and themes. It was nothing short of spectacular and I could have spent much time enjoying the amazing spaces they have created – very different to the London underground! It was a shame that we were not allowed to take any photos of them, but they will be ingrained in my memory forever.”
Hearty, delicious cuisine
Uzbek cuisine is hearty and filling – think lots of breads, rice dishes and noodles. Plov is the national dish. It’s rather like paella, with meat (chicken, lamb or beef), onions, raisins, vegetables, herbs, spices and rice. This is usually cooked in a kazan, a vast cast-iron pot. Locals tend to make a huge amount of plov in one go, which will feed several families. There are subtle differences in the recipe between regions – a great excuse for sampling it more than once on your trip!
Sour milk products are another favourite (look out for katyk and suzma), and you’ll often find dishes flavoured with fragrant spices – black cumin, cinnamon, saffron and lots of black pepper.
“All of the meals were at very interesting and unique venues, from family homes to local palaces, the main square of town to the city madrasah. All of them had very welcoming people, great service and often included entertainment.
My favourite venue and setting of all was the lunch in the yurt camp. It was very traditional, the food was delicious – the local liqueur was another experience in itself, though. It would certainly warm the cockles on a cold Uzbek night!”
Are you tempted to visit Uzbekistan?