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Published on Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Retracing the Silk Road in Uzbekistan: How to dig a little deeper

See video by Stefano de Franceschi HERE

The Golden Road to Samarkand is many travellers" Holy Grail, but these days increased opportunities in this "Stan" allow you to get off the beaten track in more ways than one.

Be sure to take in the star-studded highlights The Registan, Bukhara and Khiva have to offer, yet also make time for yurts, horses, masterpieces, and more.   

The chances are you will be arriving in Tashkent by plane. It"s not quite the "superhub" the Uzbek government would like it to be but enough airlines fly there these days to make it relatively straightforward to find a flight. Unfortunately, the capital we see today was rebuilt by the Soviets after a disastrous earthquake in 1968, so it can come across as austere and monolithic. Certainly, the area around Amir Timur Square looks more designed for tanks and generals than local explorers, but the wide boulevards and open squares do have some charm and the metro makes it easy to get around (check out Kosmonavltar station for some real Soviet kitsch).

The old town is a different story. Ten years ago it was a warren of very dusty (and sometimes very dirty) streets and locked up buildings. As Uzbekistan has grown as a republic, however, so life in the capital has improved and most of the historical mosques and madrassahs have been restored.

The Khast Imom complex is now is open to visitors and houses the oldest Koran in the world. Take your time to wander round and try walking back to the centre to get more of a feel for things.

Make no mistake, Samarkand has been scrubbed up recently and some complain it"s become  over-sanitized - the new pedestrianised mall is more Santa Monica than Central  Asia, for example and the market have lost a lot of its buzz, but The Registan is still "The noblest Square in the world" (Lord Curzon of India fame) and few seeing it for the first time will be disappointed (a fascinating photo exhibition inside the Shir Dor Madrassah at least gives you an idea of what it used to look like.

Once you"ve finished ticking off the main sights, however, why not head a couple of hours out of town and try living life like a local. Tabiati Forish run a collection of homestays (including yurts) both in the Nurata Mountains and next to Aydur Kul Lake, all you need to do is email/call their office in Yangikishlak to let them know you are on your way and they will do the rest - the food is as delicious as it"s authentic (

The sights in Bukhara speak for themselves, but you can enhance your experience by passing over the many boutique hotels which have sprung up in and around the Ark. Instead head for one of a handful of old merchant"s houses which have been restored and turned into guesthouses.

Most of them are signposted from Labi Hauz. After a hard day"s sightseeing treat yourself to a sauna and massage at the recently re-opened Borzi Kord hammam. $20 gets you the works, with the original marble trappings thrown in for free .  If you find Bukhara too clean and tidy it"s easy to get down to Shakrisabz and Termiz for a look at Uzbekistan"s less-reconstructed side.

The last key stop for most visitors is Khiva. The old city (Ichan Qala) is still enclosed by the original city walls, which makes for a compact collection of architectural gems. It"s worth getting a bed for the night inside the walls so you can wander round on your own once the day-trippers have gone home. It"s also worth exploring the rest of Karakalpakstan - you might as well, you"ve come this far!

The ecological disaster that is the Aral Sea is nothing if not depressing but any visit to the region will be appreciated by the desperate villagers who used to fish in the lake (now most of the fish are dead and the villages are stranded up to 100km from the retreating shore!). On your way stop off at the Savitsky Museum in Nukus, for what must make up the most comprehensive collection of avant-garde Soviet art in the world. It was the private collection of Igor Savitsky, himself a prodigious artist, which he secretly built up to protect the works from destruction by the authorities.

If that"s not enough, do what Silk Roadsters of yesteryear did, and take in Uzbekistan as part of a longer overland trip. Why not try a loop east out of Tashkent  through Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

First up, the Ferghana Valley (home to Uzbekistan"s major silk producers and ceramics centres); next, trek or horse ride the Kyrgyz mountains and lakes between Osh to Bishkek (despite recent unrest the country is safe enough to travel) before kicking back on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul; finally live it up over the Kazakh border in the region"s nightlife capital, Almaty, then sleep it off the epic overnight train back west to Shymkent (from where it"s easy to cross the border back to Tashkent)    

Top Tips 

Visas: You need to give yourself at least 2 weeks if applying for an Uzbek visa back home. If you are travelling on to other "Stans" you can save time by applying for subsequent visas in Tashkent while you travel around Uzbekistan but make sure you carry a photocopy for police checks/hotel registration  

Money: Getting money from banks isn"t quite as hard as it used to be but can still take time. You can withdraw US dollars and local Sum with Visa and Mastercard. Official exchange rates in banks and hotels are still about 25% less than the "street rate".

Travelling around: Don"t Fly!! The new high-speed trains between Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara are fantastic, quick and cheap, but it"s best to buy your ticket a day in advance. Buses are also reliable and link all the major towns and cities.

Paul Wilson is the author of The Silk Roads published by Trailblazer. It"s the only guide to offer practical as well as cultural information for the whole route.

Get free sustainable tourism reports from Vision on Sustainable Tourism HERE

Valere Tjolle is editor of the Sustainable Tourism Report Suite: EXTRA SPECIAL OFFER at:

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