20.05.2011 - 31.05.2011
We visited Uzbekistan as part of a Central Asia tour organised by the UK based travel agent Undiscovered Destinations.
Uzbekistan's heritage is centred around its place at the cross roads of the historical Silk Road. The Great Silk Road was a network of trade routes which spanned from the Mediterranean and North Africa in the West to China in the East. First traversed in the 2nd century BC the Silk Road remained a vital conduit between East and West up into the end of the 14th Century when an increase in maritime trade, and the self imposed isolation of Ming Dynasty China, lead to its decline. The term 'Silk Road' was coined as recently as the 1870s by German Geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen and referred to the major role that silk played as a trading commodity. However, the Great Silk Road was used to transport much more than silk and arguably its most significant legacy was the flow of ideas, technologies, culture and religion that came to pass. The ancient towns of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand are as famous as any locations on the Silk Road and today their well restored monuments, mosques and madrassas form the backdrop of Uzbekistan's most impressive sites. All three towns are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Map of Great Silk Road with Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand highlighted
All the states of Central Asia are nominally Islamic but, Afghanistan aside, none are overtly religious. When the Soviets invaded they clamped down heavily on religion. Many mosques were demolished or turned into museums. The Bukha was completely banned and the few remaining madrassas were put under state control. Nowadays most Uzbeks identify themselves as muslims though few seem to actively practice the faith. Drinking of alcohol is commonplace and the wearing of bukhas is rare. There are only a few working madrasses and religious extremism has mostly been kept under control.
Arriving in Uzbekistan
We flew into the Uzbek capital Tashkent on a flight from South Korea. There's a fairly sizable ethnic Korean community in Uzbekistan and our flight had been taken over by more than 200 elderly Koreans returning from a goodwill trip to Korea, organised by the Uzbek government. Unfortunately they weren't overly air travel savy and didn't realise they were expected to sit in the seat marked on their boarding passes. After a lenghty game of musical chairs, and a further delay whilst a passenger received emergency medical attention, we finally took off an hour late. Tashkent airport has a reputation for long queues and official corruption. On arrival our plane was stranded on the tarmac for 30 mins whilst a ground crew was located. After disembarking we made it through to immigration fairly quickly but then the fun and games started. It turns out that if you're not willing to pay the 'express service' fee then the immigration queue doesn't really move. After an hour we finally made it through to the baggage area where, through a thick haze of cigarette smoke, there was absolutely no sign of any baggage. Another hour passed and some bags finally appeared. A further 30 mins later our bags trundled round. All in all it had taken three hours between landing and making it out of the airport. Welcome to Uzbekistan!
After a night in Tashkent we took a short internal flight to Urgench from where Khiva is a 35km drive away. The old town of Khiva is about 1km square and enclosed within a large perimeter wall. Critics say that the town lacks a historical feel due to over restoration of its landmark buildings. However, the city is still undoubtably impressive with its series of historic museums, mosques, madrassas and minarets. The criss cross of lanes are filled with vendors selling souvenirs, many of whom flash a golden smile as they deliver their sales patter. Gold teeth were fashionable during Soviet times so many elder people, especially women, have a whole mouth full of gold. The vendors are generally friendly and not to persistant. People visiting Khiva will, if lucky, stay within the old town itself. Due to over occupancy we ended up in the less desirable Soviet-style town of Urgench. On departing Khiva we headed for the Uzbek-Turkmen border.
Hospitalised in rural Uzbekistan
After spending three nights in Turkmenistan it was time to return to Uzbekistan. The five hour road trip from the Turkmen town of Mary to the Uzbek border is mostly through arid desert. The long trip was fairly uncomfortable due, in part, to the heat and uneven desert roads but furthermore because of a dodgy shashlik kebab eaten the night before. On reaching the border the exit procedures from Turkmenistan were fairly straightforward. However, to reach the Uzbek side of the border required a 3km trip across the demilitarised zone which separates the two countries. A shuttle bus was on hand to take us half the way but on reaching the mid-point we were left in the desert with our suitcases to walk the remaining 1.5km. Unfortunately the desert trek took its toll and upon commencing immigration procedures on the Uzbek side the aforementioned kebab was regurgitated in front of the border guards at an inopportune moment. Having already seized our passports the border guards decided we'd only be permitted to enter the country if taken into the care of a local hospital. Our assertations that only water and rest were required were to no avail and an ambulance was called for. After an hour of waiting in an unairconditioned room, and trying unsuccessfully to talk our way out of going to hospital with the non-English speaking guards, a small van arrived with a doctor, nurse and dirty bed in the back. By this time we'd managed to contact our Uzbek tour guide but, despite her best efforts, we were told we were now in the hands of the local hospical. The local hospital was 30km away so off we set with our tour guide following behind. The hospital was a small ex-Soviet style afair with no electricity or running water. We were taken to a dark room with a bed in the corner where we waited for the doctor and hospital manager. Having a couple of foreigners in the hospital was obviously a novelty because before long there were four nurses and various other people sticking their heads around the door to watch proceedings. When the hospital manager appeared he seemed keen for us to stay the night. However, after a lot of persuasion he finally agreed to discharge us if we first drafted a disclaimer absolving the hospital of all responsibility should we leave. A disclaimer form was quickly written and signed and finally we were on our way. Upon reaching our hotel in Bukhara the hotel manager recommended vodka laced with salt as his remedy for an upset stomach. We politely declined and after a days rest were ready to continue with our tour.
Bukhara is considered to be the holiest site in Central Asia. Like other Silk Road towns it has a long history of invasions and conquest. Genghis Khan rampaged through here in the 13th century and Timur followed a century later. Today the old town is full of well preserved historic sites including Bukhara Arc (fortess), Mir-i-Arab madrassa and the Kalon Minaret. Bukhara is arguably the most impressive location in Uzbekistan.
Timelapse photograpy of Mir-i-Arab Medressa and Kalyan Minaret at sunset:
Samarkand is the second biggest city in Uzbekistan and probably the most famous of Central Asia's Silk Road towns. In the 14th century it was the capital of Timur's extensive empire and now is home to his mausoleum. The city has an almost mythical status and has been refered to in many works of fiction. Samarkand's most notable sites include the Registan, Bibi-Khanym mosque, Guri Amir mausoleum and the Shah-i-zindi (avenue of mausoleums).
Ever since independence Uzbekistan has struggled with rampant inflation. Though slightly more under control now than previously there is still a large gap between the officially published exchange rate and reality. People are normally keen to get hold of US dollars and often jack up the price considerably if you pay in local currency. Due to the low value of the local currency even small exchanges result in a huge number of the highest denomination local currency notes.
Less than USD 100 in highest denomination local currency notes:
As a sightseeing destination Uzbekistan is extremely underrated. There are numerous impressive sites to see and the ancient Silk Road history mixed with the more recent Soviet legacy add an interesting contrast. The people are generally welcoming and friendly. On the negative side the quality of hotels and restaurants is fairly low and the service in most places seems to be trapped in a Soviet timewarp. Official corruption is widespread and infation rampant.