Located in the dusty interior of Central Asia, you likely haven’t heard of Uzbekistan unless you took a class on Asian history. If you did, you know that for a place that most people can’t spell, much less find on a map, Uzbekistan as a country has had quite a storied past.
In ancient times, these lands were taken by the armies of Alexander the Great, as he and many future regional powers realized its importance in regional and later, intercontinental trade. The Silk Road was a path that many traders from Europe and Asia alike traversed, each seeking the riches that each possessed in return for the goods that both areas of the world took pride in. In these affairs, Uzbekistan, along with many other Central Asian countries, were the middlemen, the toll collectors, the inn keepers on this lengthy highway of commerce.
These days, travel here is much more difficult, as bureaucratic procedures carried over from the days of Soviet control make visa procurement to visit here an exercise in Buddha-like patience. Once you travel jumped through figurative flaming hoops though, prepare to be dazzled by opulent Islamic architecture, humbled by imposing fortresses, and taught sobering lessons in environment management (the death of the Aral Sea), all while you stroll around in the absence of the usual maddening hordes of tourists. Just like the atmosphere amongst the deserted slopes of its Southern and Eastern mountains, Uzbekistan is like a breath of fresh air in a travel world filled with ruined and over trafficked travel experiences.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Human rights that Westerners take for granted (like freedom of speech and assembly) don’t really exist here, so mind what you say at all times. Not doing so will make your hosts and other locals that you interact with very uncomfortable, as plainclothes secret police are thought to mingle among the populace. It is rumored and widely believed that the current president authorized the killing of several hundred protestors back in 2005.
Currency: Uzbek som
Languages: Uzbek, Russian
What To Do
Beginning your journey in the capital of Tashkent, the first sight that you should check out before departing for destinations out on the Silk Road should be the State Museum of History of Uzbekistan. Being the oldest museum in all of Central Asia, this repository of historical artifacts contains thousands of pieces in its collection, from the times of prehistory to the present day. Exhibits of note include human remains that have been carbon dated to be over 1.5 million years old, coins from the days of Alexander the Great (~ 500 BCE), and statues of the Buddha that predate the arrival of Islam in this country (dated from 400-100 BCE).
The first stop you should make on the Silk Road should be in the dusty but historically rich city of Samarkand. Here, there are many mosques and mausoleums you should see, but if you are rushed, be sure to at least make time for the Registan. This place served as a public square for the city of Samarkand, where proclamations were issued, people gathered, and more gruesomely, where executions were held in full view of the citizens of this place. The Registan was also where three Islamic universities were situated, with classrooms, dormitories, and the main hall of worship (masjid) abutting the sides of the intricately designed square.
In Bukara, a mighty fortress referred to simply as The Ark will shock and astound you with its size and scale. With it not even being fully restored to its former glory, this bulwark has stood the test of time and conflict since the 6th century, only succumbing in a major way to the Soviets in 1920, as air power and modern munitions finally proved to be this warhorse’s match.
Serving as an oasis of civilization in the middle of the Western desert, Itchan Kala was a sight for the sore eyes of many traders over the previous centuries. Located in the modern day city of Khiva, this walled city is protected by UNESCO, as it contains many outstanding examples of Central Asian inspired Islamic architecture, with spectacular mosques, mausoleums and palaces situated within its fortifications.
In travel, not all sites we visit are occasion for celebration and wonder; such is the case with the Aral Sea, which has been cited as one of the world’s worst environmental disasters by the media. In Soviet times, this area implemented uber-intensive agriculture in the production of cotton. The use of toxic chemicals to control insects and heavy use of water in the Aral Sea for irrigation sucked up its once plentiful waters to the point where about the half of this once pristine body of water has now depleted, leaving behind a moonscape of dried up, sandy poisoned land. Not a happy place to visit, but one that carries a powerful environmental lesson.
After that depressing encounter, head back east to visit Ugam Chatkal National Park, a delightfully under visited place that houses some of Uzbekistan’s most breathtaking mountain scenery. With many brilliant wildflowers, the presence of endangered species such as the Tien-Shan brown bear and the snow leopard, and backcountry skiing in the winter that has only recently been “discovered” by big mountain snowsport stars, you have the makings of a very special place that deserves a space on your Uzbekistan trip itinerary.
What To Eat
When sitting down to eat a meal in Uzbekistan, be sure to order Plov if you can. Considered to be the national dish of this country, Plov consists of rice, carrots, onions and mutton. The composition of this flavourful dish varies by region, so be sure to order it when visiting different areas of the country.
Bearing a remarkable similarity both in name and composition to another type of snack found in South Asia, Somsas are a favoured go-to pastry to stave off hunger between meals. Somsas contain a variety of fillings, which can include beef, mutton, pumpkin, and potatoes. These treats are sold on the street all over the country, so pick some up if you have the chance!
Finally, Lagman is a thick stew/soup that is comprised of various meats and vegetables, potatoes, pasta, which are all simmered together with a fragrant mix of spices. This heartwarming meal, much like Plov, can vary in complexity and contents depending on where you are in Uzbekistan, so if you like it, feel free to order it a lot.