World Heritage on the Silk Road
Cradle of culture for over 2000 years, Uzbekistan follows a legendary Silk Road lined with UNESCO cities. Natural disasters and troubled history have caused substantial destruction, but palaces, fortresses, madrassas and mosques still dazzle visitors, beautifully restored with a fair degree of artistic licence.
A short flight from Tashkent, Khiva was our first call, an oasis between two deserts where caravans used to rest on their way to Persia. I loved Ichon Qala, the earth-coloured inner town enclosed by a crenellated wall, 2.2 km around and up to 10 metres high. Most exciting was the West Gate for if you climb up the tower, you can enjoy all round views: old houses, historic buildings, domes and minarets bristling across the citadel, among them the mysterious Kalta Minar, heavenly blue but never finished, and the highest, Islam Khoja with challenging steps to the top. Islam was set up by Arab invaders around AD700 and after centuries of ups and downs, Khiva grew into a major cultural and religious centre until the Soviet era put an end to it all. Mosques and madrassas (colleges) promptly declined though some found a new life as a museum or luxury hotel, graced by glistening blue and white majolica tiles. But most atmospheric is the Juma (Friday) Mosque where in the semi-darkness, the past lingers in a vast prayer hall supported by carved elm pillars, over 200 of them, a few dating back to the 10th century. You’ll also find inspiring mosques from the 1800s, sacred mausoleums, haunting palaces and myriad souvenir stalls along the cobbled street. The camels have gone but the Silk Road is doing well.
From cotton fields to windy steppes, it was an all-day drive to Bukhara and its sparkling illuminations, a world away from quiet moonlit Khiva. Yet we soon discovered that all main attractions were within walking distance of Lyabi Hauz, the pretty central park just across the road from our hotel. There we sipped green tea under the mulberry trees, gazed at the lofty madrassas mirrored in an emerald pond and wandered around the winding lanes where local life went on behind carved wooden doors. Later we discovered the old trading domes packed with craft then stepped out into the Poi Kalyon square with the tapering Great Minaret rising 45 metres above the city. In this amazing complex with its own madrassa and mosque, I sat for a while in the vast inner courtyard, marvelling at domes and columns as a few worshippers made their way to prayer. We could not see all the monuments – there are 140 of them – but I was impressed by every magnificent façade glistening with blue tiles, the unusual Chor Minor with its four minarets, the Bolo Khauz mosque fronted by 20 columns and the Ismail Samani mausoleum once buried in an artificial hill to hide it from Genghis Khan. We peeped around the Ark, the ancient fortress and residence of the local Emirs, but soon it was time to leave this magical city and inspired by Flecker’s poem, continue our tour on ‘The Golden Road to Samarkand’.
This is the country’s second largest city, the ‘Gem of the East’ with tree-lined avenues, lawns and parks, a sprinkling of outstanding monuments and over the mountain pass to the south, Shakhrisabz, the birth place of Timur, the iconic 14th century ruler. His vast memorial complex is popular for wedding photos but most dramatic is the largely unrestored Central Gateway where the past really feels within reach. Back in town we went up to the Observatory of Ulug Beg, the brilliant astronomer come ruler who positioned over 1000 stars in the 15th century. Other monuments include the stunning turquoise and blue Shah-i-Zinda (mausoleum of the patron saint), the Timur mausoleum (Gur-i-Amir) and the heavily restored Bibi Khanym mosque, built for Timur by his Lady though not at all appreciated. Then surrounded by parkland at the heart of town is Registan, the most breathtaking square, once covered in sand hence the name, today a vast open space leading down to three spectacular madrassas, Ulug Beg the oldest, Sher Dor on the other side with its ribbed domes and mosaic work, and in the centre, Tilla Kari with the superb gold and blue interior. We spent much time within the complex while the last night treated us to the most evocative sons et lumières along the memorable Silk Road.
I travelled with Jules Verne on the Golden Road to Samarkand.
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Continental climate means weather can change unexpectedly so pack and carry layers as well as raingear and suncream.
A torch is always useful and absolutely essential if you intend to climb up a minaret.
You may be charged to use your camera, usually 5000 soms (50p), have change ready.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Jules Verne.