Locked in the heart of Central Asia, Uzbekistan is both a museum to the ancient Silk Road and a country shaking off its Soviet past while striving to develop its place within the modern world. This concoction of old and new is what makes it so special – go for the history and you’ll undoubtedly fall for the distinctive culture and friendly people.
With everything from Unesco World Heritage Sites and ruined desert fortresses to mega meat kebabs, artistic tile work, and buzzing neighbourhoods, Uzbekistan is ripe for exploring now.
1. For cosmopolitan Tashkent
Tashkent may trace its roots back more than two thousand years but today it has a contemporary feel with wide, tree-lined streets, grand statues, green spaces, shopping malls, museums, and just a nod to some characteristically Soviet architecture. A devastating earthquake all but flattened the city in 1966, so many of the ancient buildings simply vanished or were reconstructed. Head to the Hazrat Imam complex for a dose of national history and refuel at Afsona with its modern Uzbek cuisine.
2. For UNESCO treasures
Officially, there are four UNESCO sites (with many more on the tentative list) but as each is an old town, you get plenty of things to see for your som (Uzbekistani currency). These are the historic centres of Bukhara and Shakhrisabz, Khiva’s Itchan Kala, and Samarkand.
Highlights include the endlessly beautiful Shah-i-Zinda, a street of striking tiled mausoleums, and Ulugh Beg’s fifteenth-century observatory in Samarkand. Elsewhere, the albeit incomplete vase-like Kalta Minor and rounded walls of Khiva, and Bukhara’s mighty Kalyan Minaret beg to be admired – among many other attractions.
3. For the varied architecture of the four Ms: mosques, madrasahs, mausoleums and minarets
Uzbekistan has more mosques, madrasahs, mausoleums, and minarets than you can shake a stick at – even the hardiest of sight-seekers would be pushed to see them all.
There’s no one-style-fits all approach here – the variety in the architecture represents the diversity of the different periods and rulers across the centuries.
In Khiva, you can wander among more than 200 intricately carved elm wood columns inside the cool, dark Juma Mosque, while the distinctive Chor Minor Mosque in Bukhara is curious for its four-minarets and almost sandcastle-like design.
The same applies to the mausoleums: the mysteriously understated stone ‘tomb of Timur’ in Shakhrisabz is, in fact, no such thing, as Timur is actually entombed in the contrastingly elaborate Gur-i-Amir Mausoleum in Samarkand, complete with slabs of onyx and jade, marble stalactites and gilded domes. Then there’s the Samanid Mausoleum in Bukhara which is different still: a cube of baked brick with both Zoroastrian and Islamic motifs.
4. For dazzling tile work
Adorning many of the four Ms, inside and out, is some serious tilework with a mix of geometric patterns and calligraphy, delicate flowers, and mosaics offering a kaleidoscope of blue, white, green and turquoise. What sets Uzbekistan’s tile art apart is the occasional depiction of animals and birds, as the use of such creatures is generally forbidden in Islam. Look out for the playful tigers in Samarkand’s Registan, and the phoenix above the gate at the Nadir Divan-Beghi Madrasah in Bukhara.
5. To take stock at one of mankind’s worst environmental disasters
A trip to the Aral Sea offers a hard look at a dark stain on the country’s past. The Soviets’ reckless irrigation drive throughout the 1960s effectively drained what was one of the largest lakes in the world, causing it to shrink to less than half of its original size. The demand for cotton at any cost turned areas to dust and continues to affect the climate between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. It is now a graveyard to boats and crumbling lighthouses, and hopefully, a lesson learned.
6. For an unforgettable night’s yurting
The Khorezm area stretches into both the Karakum and Kyzylkum deserts and is said to be home to around 50 ruined fortresses – many still hidden beneath the sand. Eight of these have enough on show for you to get a good idea of their once imposing scale and impressive location, and the sun-baked ruins of Ayaz Kala, dating back to the fourth century BC, are the star attraction. Make the most of your trip with a camel trek to this ancient monument or spend the night in its shadow at the local yurt camp.
7. To get stuck into non, plov, and shashlik
Non, or bread, comes in all shapes and sizes and goes nicely with a big, juicy, charred shashlik – a type of shish kebab, traditionally lamb or mutton, served on intimidatingly large skewers. Then there’s plov, a national (and regional) speciality – think rice topped with cooked carrots, onions, and chunks of mutton. Uzbeks also know how to do a good salad, whether it’s a warm tomato and aubergine number or a simple Greek-style side.
8. For crowd-free exploring
Uzbekistan’s popularity is, without a doubt, on the up – and it should be easy to see why. The trick is to enjoy the countless historic, natural, and cultural attractions on offer while the country is still relatively crowd-free – now really is the time to go.