Amazing architecture, irresistible crafts and the prettiest metro stations in the world – our writer finds Uzbekistan full of surprises.
In Samarkand, the very name as mysterious and magical as the legends it evokes, I am surrounded by blue. From the twinkling peacock colour of the domes to the azure tiles and the turquoise minarets, the city’s famous square is awash with shades of sparkling sapphire.
For centuries, travellers have been mesmerised by the romance of the Silk Road, conjuring its images of caravans bearing spices and treasures from East to West. Great names from Marco Polo to Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan are all linked with this remarkable region and now a new generation of adventurers are poised to make their own discoveries.
Because with improved infrastructure, these thousands of architectural wonders and Unesco sites are easier than ever to explore — bookings on one leading tour operator’s Silk Road trip are up by 150 per cent this year.
Independent from the Soviet Union since 1991, Uzbekistan’s own history dates back millennia and its traditions live on.
Dancers in colourful robes spin to the rhythms of drums and tambourines in a square in Tashkent’s city centre and again in a restaurant after lunch, the warmth and energy epitomising the country’s distinctive personality, which combines rich culture with modern dynamism.
Most journeys start here in the capital, much of which was destroyed by earthquake in 1966, now rebuilt with modern buildings alongside 18th century architecture and squares.
Beyond the Soviet architecture, such as the Hotel Uzbekistan, one of its treasures lies underground. I was entranced by the city’s metro system, built in 1973 and said to be the most elegant in the world. Adorned with mosaics, mirrors and chandeliers each station is different and makes our own tube stations look very dowdy indeed.
Two hours away on the stylish Afrosiyob high-speed train lies Samarkand, home to some of the area’s iconic architecture. Three beautiful madrasas dominate Registan square, the heart of the old city, with breathtaking turquoise domes and minarets above the religious schools.
Here too I found the observatory of Ulugbek, grandson of Temur or Tamerlane, Uzbekistan’s most famous conqueror. An astronomer, scientist and architect, Ulugbek lies buried next to his grandfather in the beautifully reconstructed Gur-Emir Mausoleum.
And after haggling in the bazaars over the azure blue ceramics and luxurious silk rugs for which Samarkand is famous, I headed east into the narrow streets of the Jewish quarter or mohallah, which dates back to 1893.
These days, the country’s Jewish population is small — around 5,000 of more than 30 million, all Muslim apart from around five per cent Russian Orthodox Christians. But its Jewish heritage, which traces back to the centuries before Genghis Khan, still endures.
I visited the small synagogue in Samarkand where caretaker Yosef Tilayev was on hand to show me round and tell of the days when this was the centre of a thriving community.
Today, the remains of baths and a Jewish school can still be seen. Standing in the pretty courtyard with its cherry trees he tells me there were 35,000 Jews here 45 years ago, but that only 200 remain today. Most left after independence in 1991 for Israel or the USA.
Their history is remembered too in the Museum of Local Lore, housed in the former home of merchant Kalantarov Abram, one of the leaders of the Bukhara Jewish community in Samarkand. In its small exhibition, Jews in the region: past and present, are old photographs, books, and objects of everyday life of the Jewish community.
There are few more peaceful places to remember this past than the Tomb of Daniel, with its lovely views over the city. Legend says the mausoleum was built for the Old Testament prophet revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike during Tamerlane’s conquest of Syria, a natural spring welling up as he was buried.
The water certainly flows, with reputed healing powers, although whether it’s truly Daniel’s final resting place is open to debate.
Retracing the Silk Road west, you reach Bukhara. One of the oldest cities in the world, it is home to the Kalyan Minaret, built in 1127. At 47 metres high, it is thought to have been the tallest building in Central Asia — its name deriving from the Tajik for great — surviving Genghis Khan’s destruction of the city because of its beauty.
And between Bukhara’s two covered bazaars, in the former spice bazaar, is Central Asia’s oldest surviving mosque, the Maghoki-Attar.
The city was once home to one of the most isolated communities of Jews in the world, before mass emigration in the 20th century. Few remain but Bukharian Jews are still famous for their Shabbat breads, elaborately decorated with seeds and colouring.
Here you’ll find a variation on the country’s traditional plov — a rice-based pilaff made with beef or lamb fat and traditionally cooked by men — using carp. Smoked trout and fish are also found in many restaurants unlike much of landlocked Uzbekistan.
Further west still lies the walled open-air city of Khiva, a living museum where it seems time has stood still. Dating from the 6th century, this Silk Road trading city is the centre of the country’s traditional carpet-making industry today, with intricately patterned examples throughout the bazaars.
A beautiful emerald green dome topped with a large brass finial marks the Mausoleum of Pakhlavan Mahmoud — Khiva’s holiest site, and shrine of Khiva’s patron, a fur hat maker, poet and wrestler.
To the far east is Chimgan, Uzbek’s ‘Switzerland’, with mountains, streams and juniper forests, or the pomegranate and apricot orchards of the Fergana Valley where you can sleep under the stars in a traditional yurt.
But full of plov and laden with colourful ikat fabrics, I prepared to head back to Tashkent — as somewhere in the distance I heard the unmistakeable jangle of a tambourine, the sound track to my Silk Road adventure.
by Judith Baker