By Robert Selwitz
Searching for a unique country that’s intriguing, safe and inexpensive? Look no farther than Uzbekistan.
Bordering on Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, Uzbekistan is home to the legendary Silk Road cities, Samarkand and Bukhara. For centuries these very special places were the heart of the prime trade route between China and the Mediterranean. The country also boasts warm and friendly people who are glad you decided to visit. And there are continual opportunities to snap eye-popping pictures.
The country does have a few intriguing quirks, including the virtual absence of credit cards, with the exception of certain upscale hotels. Also, since the largest available bill is worth approximately $1.20, travelers must tote perpetually stuffed wallets. Nevertheless, though visa and documentation requirements are definitely time-consuming, Uzbekistan is definitely worth the challenge.
Since Tashkent, the capital, is where all international flights first land, it’s likely that’s where you will start. Though the city has a fascinating old town and an extensive mosque/madrassa complex, Tashkent today is primarily a sprawling, broad-avenue-laced modern metropolis.
You’ll also want to experience Tashkent’s extensive subway with its elegantly designed stations similar to those in Moscow. The system was built by Russia in the decade following a devastating 1966 earthquake.
To reach Samarkand, take the 7-year-old, Spanish-built Afrosiyob train. During the roughly two-hour journey, speeds can reach 160 mph.
Extraordinary tile-covered madrassas, mosques and mausoleums are Uzbekistan’s prime tourism draw. And three former madrassas surrounding Samarkand’s Registan Square are as good as it gets.
While their original mission — to instruct Muslim students — ceased between 1920 and 1991 due to Soviet anti-religion regulations, the buildings themselves are as elegant as they were when they debuted between the 15th and 17th centuries. Today they share a common fate of many other Muslim edifices: They are sites for tourist merchandise shops.
Other major Samarkand must-sees include the massive tomb of Timur, the great 14th- century conqueror; the magnificently decorated Shaki-Zinda Necropolis; and the observatory of Ulugbec, Timur’s grandson and a great 15th-century astronomer.
Back on the Afrosiyob, it’s an hour-and-a-half ride to Bukhara. Whereas Samarkand is a city of monuments, Bukhara’s old town blends historic gems, a great fort and the elegant Lyabi Khauz complex. Good food and great people-watching thrive here, today as during centuries past. Major Bukhara sights include the Ark Fortress, the former home of the city’s rulers and Char Minor, a former madrassa with four distinct minarets.
To the west lies Khiva, home to a completely walled old city dotted with gorgeously tiled soaring minarets. Jam-packed with former madrassas and mosques, most intriguing is the magnificently tiled Islam Khoja minaret. At 144 feet tall it is Khiva’s tallest. You’ll want to either fly here or hire a car and driver to cover the 277-mile, seven-and-a-half-hour trip. Currently there is no comfortable train option.
With more time you could explore the extraordinary Savitsky Museum in Nukus, a major repository of 1930s-era Russian avant-garde paintings. Or venture to Termez, site of fascinating 2-millennia-old Buddhist ruins. Divided into several sectors, of greatest interest is Termez’s ancient portion, which is directly adjacent to Uzbekistan’s border with Afghanistan. Here, accompanied by an armed Uzbek soldier, you’ll explore caves that nearly 2,000 years ago were home to Buddhist proselytizers. From this base they spread their faith’s message throughout Asia.
Another sector features museums, and mosques that are remnants of life under Muslim rule dominant here since the seventh century. Comfortable hotels and appealing restaurants are not far away.
WHEN YOU GO
The Lotte City Palace Tashkent is a friendly, modern property in a great location: www.lottehotel.com/city/tashkentpalac
Soy is a very popular restaurant with the locals. The hotel concierge can tell you how to get there.
Advantour is an excellent, reliable and dependable tour operator. Contact Shavkat Khodjaev at www.advantour.com.
The Amulet is an elegant, beautifully run hotel made from a renovated 19th-century madrassa that is close to major sights.
Robert Selwitz is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.