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Uzbekistan: the most fascinating country you’ve never been to

Uzbekistan hardly stands front and center when it comes to potential holiday destinations.

For ATTENTION: From July 15 (2018), the country is pruning some of the red tape that surrounds it. Travellers will be able to visit for up to five days without applying for a visa (so long as they arrive by air and have an onward flight booked), while those wanting to stay longer can take advantage of a new electronic visa system, which promises to take just two days to process applications (and costs $20).

So what does this Central Asian enigma have up its sleeve for travellers? A surprising amount. Here’s everything you need to know…

It’s a snippet of the Silk Road’s best bits…

If you’re intrigued by the ancient Silk Road but don’t have the time to travel its length from China to Turkey, you’ll find three of the route’s most important cities in Uzbekistan. Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand were key stop-offs for traders, and have all been painstakingly restored to their former glory – think glittering minarets, voluptuous domes and hypnotic mosaics. With a little planning you can squeeze them all into a week, making this the perfect bite of Silk Road splendour.

…with some Soviet-era muscle

Tashkent – Uzbekistan’s capital – was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1966, while the country was under Soviet rule. Some 300,000 people were left homeless, but with matchless Soviet muscle the entire city was rebuilt and restored – indeed, it is said that construction work started the day after the quake.

As a result, you’ll find a charming mish-mash of restored 12th-century mosques and classical Russian architecture alongside blocky Brutalist buildings and statues of workers with bulging biceps. Stay at Hotel Uzbekistan – which towers over the city’s main park – to experience some faded Soviet glory up close.

It’s a bit like time travel

The walled city of Khiva is a living museum, protected by Unesco but still populated by Uzbek families and businesses. It was founded in the 6th century, and thrived as a Silk Road trading city – with increasingly ornate mosques, mausoleums and madrassas (religious schools) added to its labyrinth of streets, all of which have been artfully restored.

It’s a popular spot for wedding parties, who visit for photo opportunities under the vibrant turquoise mosaics, and its streets are lined with souvenir stalls hawking everything from handmade teapots to traditional woolly hats. But after 5pm, the local tourists head home – leaving you to explore the city in peace. Wander its streets while swallows swoop in the fading light, its mud brick walls rosy under a pinky sky. It’s easy to imagine you’re in the 12th century.

You’ll have the place to yourself

Uzbek wedding parties embark on grand tours of Uzbekistan’s ancient cities, armed with camera crews and copious relatives – but aside from them, you’ll only find a handful of tourists in every major site. It’s refreshing to visit a place where domestic tourists far outnumber international ones, and the wedding groups are always in the party spirit. The novelty of seeing a bride posing in full white gown regalia beneath a technicolour 10th-century minaret never wears off.

A bloodthirsty conqueror is their national hero

The undoubted hero of Uzbekistan is Timur, a 14th century conqueror who married a descendent of Genghis Khan and whose armies killed an estimated 17 million people on their rampage across Central Asia. You’ll spy his face on everything from hotel lobby paintings and banknotes to sweet packets – although his ginger beard, lame leg and stooping stature have been cast aside for a more aesthetically-pleasing portrait.

It’s easier to get around than you think

The transport options have improved somewhat since the days of Silk Road camel trekking. All of Uzbekistan’s main draws are served by low-cost domestic flights, great road links and high-speed trains. You’ll find shared taxis and bus services in all the cities, plus Tashkent has a decent metro with some wonderfully ornate stations.

It’s safe for female travellers

Unwanted attention isn’t really a problem in Uzbekistan – a firm “no” holds more clout here than in some other Central Asian countries, and reports of crimes against tourists are reassuringly low. Around 90 per cent of Uzbeks are Muslim, but women do not wear the veil: as a result, perhaps, gender equality is much stronger.

Women do dress more conservatively than in Europe though, so opt for sleeves (short ones will do), knee-length skirts and minimal cleavage. Local ladies love brightly-coloured dresses, often with sequins and matching harem trousers, and you can pick up some fetching ensembles for a few dollars in most bazaars.

You’ll be instantly more exotic

Not many people can find Uzbekistan on a map, so make it your first job to pinpoint its location with ease. Then you can gleefully point it out to everyone who’s bamboozled by your choice of holiday destination, and wow them with the trivia that it’s one of the world’s only two double-landlocked countries (the other is Lichtenstein). You’ll also be asked repeatedly why on earth you’d want to go to a ‘Stan. What about terrorism, they’ll bleat. Surely there’s nothing to see? Direct all naysayers to this guide.

It’s an amazing place for shopping

Timur and his descendants called on ceramicists, artists and architects from all over the empire to beautify the cities of Khiva, Samarkand and Bukhara. Their mosques were adorned with the finest murals and mosaics, with techniques and materials imported mainly from Persia. Happily, Uzbekistan’s artisan skills live on and you can pick up handmade ceramics, needlework, silk cloth and miniaturist paintings for just a few dollars in most madrassas, which have largely been transformed into bazaars.

It’s surprisingly cosmopolitan

The cities of Tashkent and Bukhara in particular have a rather European vibe – think lakeside beer gardens, landscaped public parks, and cafés next to most of the main tourist attractions. Fuelled by ice-cream, cold beers (try the locally-brewed UzCarlsberg), and endless pots of green tea, sightseeing in Uzbekistan is all rather jovial.

The food is… interesting

Many Uzbek dishes have all the hallmarks of USSR fare: unidentifiable boiled vegetables, uninspiring soups, and grey, overcooked meat. Throw in a handful of potent dill, and you’re pretty much there: not much flair or flavour, but it fills a hole when you’re hungry.

But there are still a few surprises on the menu. Look out for lagman, a hearty lamb soup with thick local noodles, flavoured with chives and black cumin. The unfortunately-named jiz, a Chinese-style mêlée of beef strips, pepper, onion and aubergine, is delicious too. Every region claims to have the best recipe for plov (a greasy poor man’s risotto of lamb, raisins, carrot and onion), but in reality they all taste the same.

Great places for make ziyarah

In each city there lived a man who with his way of life and actions was setting an example of true devoted service. The man who made his faith an integral part of his own life. It could be either a well-known state or public figure like Alisher Navoi, or simply a worker, an artisan who embodied virtue just with his own everyday life. During his life, or after leaving the world, such person became a saint. The place of his residence and burial, as a rule, became an object of reverence, which preserved the spirit of an amazing man and the memory of him.

Shrines of Tashkent

The Khast Imam Complex (Khazrati Imam)  ) is one of the most significant treasures of Tashkent, the religious heart of the capital. It formed near the grave of the great saint, the first imam of Tashkent – Abu Bakr Muhammad Kaffal Shashi. One of the oldest Qurans is located here – the Quran of the third of the righteous caliphs – Osman.

The complex consists of the following structures, each of which has its own history and is associated with these or other people and events:
– Madrasa of Barak Khan;
– The Tilla Sheikh Mosque;
– Madrasa of Caffal-Shashi;
– Museum of the Qurans;
– Juma Mosque of Khoja Ahrar Vali.

Another important place of pilgrimage is the Zangi-ata Mausoleum, a Muslim shrine located near Tashkent. Zangi-ata is a famous preacher of Islam in Central Asia, a major follower of Sheikh Ahmad Yassawi, the founder of the Yasaviyya Order.

Shrines of Samarkand

Three shrines of Samarkand, visiting of which in one day is equivalent to the making of a small Hajj:
– Memorial complex of Imam Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Ismail Al-Bukhari, a legendary theologian, collector of hadith. It was built around the place of his burial in 1997-98 in honor of the 1225th anniversary of his birth;


– Shakhi-Zinda is a whole ensemble of family vaults, storing the remains of representatives of the Samarkand nobility and members of the royal family – the family of Amir Temur. It is located not far from the legendary Afrosiab settlement. It includes a number of mausoleums of the late Middle Ages;


– Mausoleum of Ruhabad, built at the order of Amir Timur, where the remains of Sheikh Burkhaneddin Sagardji are buries. He was deeply respected by Timur, and also was a religious figure at the Chinese court.

Also in Samarkand, you will find the Mausoleum of Khoja Donier (Saint Daniel), the biblical prophet of the Old Testament times, that is praised in three world religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The settlement of Katta Langar is located not far from Samarkand. Its history is connected with the life of Sufi Muhammad Sadyk and Sufi brotherhood called “Ishkia”. The rags of the prophet Muhammad, according to legend, were kept in the settlement of Katta Langar.

Shrines of Bukhara

The sacred Bukhara for a long time was one of the centers of the Muslim religion. Many outstanding religious figures of many countries studied here.

In the suburbs of Bukhara there is the memorial complex of Bahautdin Naqshbandi, the sheikh of the “Naqshbandiya” Sufi order, one of the most famous Sufi brotherhoods.

Moreover, many people know of such a shrine as the Poi-Kalon Ensemble (“The Pedestal of the Great”), which occupies one of the most important places in the religious history of the city. The ensemble consists of Kalyan minaret, Kalyan mosque and Miri-Arab madrasah.

Among other famous shrines are:
– Bolo Haouz mosque;
– Magoki-Attori Mosque;
– Ensemble of Kosh-Madrasa;
– Mausoleum of the Samanid dynasty;
– The mausoleum of Chashma Ayub (“The Springs of Job”) is a shrine that is worshiped by both Christians and Muslims;
– Chor Minor (“Four minarets”).

Here, in Bukhara, still exists an equally interesting part of the city – the Jewish Quarter. The history of Central Asian Jews is lost in time. They are a special sub ethnos, whose representatives remains very few today. The entrance to the Jewish quarter is located near the Lyabi-Khauz ensemble. The old quarter is divided into three parts: The Old and New Mahalla, and Amirabad. Two synagogues, as well as a Jewish cemetery is situated here.

Buddhist shrines of Termez

Long before the coming of the conquering Arabs and the proclamation of Islam, and long before it reached China and Japan, the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha – “enlightened”, found their followers in the ancient city of Tarmit (Termez) at the territory of the ancient state of Bactria. During the archaeological excavations on this and nearby territories, many Buddhist monuments were found. The most famous to this day are: Stupa of Zurmala (or the Tower of Zurmala) is a twelve-meter building, a preserved monument of the Kushan era; and the monasteries of Karatepa (“Black Hill”) and Fayaztepa.

These are the whole temple complexes located in the middle of a desert area and are of a special interest both for lovers of history and culture, and for representatives of Buddhism who come to Uzbekistan every year to visit these ancient shrines.

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