At a time when many travellers are sceptical of travel to Muslim countries, I visited Uzbekistan in Central Asia and found not only a safe, beautiful destination but one positioning itself as one of the world’s ‘must see’ places.
Called the pearl of Central Asia, Uzbekistan, home of the Silk Road, has been traversed by traders, invaders, adventurers and explorers for over 2.5 millennia. The names of Marco Polo, Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great are associated with the nation, drawn by its access to riches and treasures and the route that joined East to West in civilisations of long ago.
Yet this part of the world is still relatively undiscovered by British travellers. But that looks set to change as Westerners gradually embrace the wonder of cities such as Samarkand; the very name as soft as silk, and a romance and intoxicating beauty found nowhere else in the world.
I was in Uzbekistan at Easter this year when the 5th International Uzbek Tourism
World of Leisure exhibition took place to demonstrate the tourism potential of Uzbekistan and its history and cultural attractions. Stands showcasing the 14 regions of the republic participated with 233 Uzbek travel companies taking part. But this was no formal presentation. The Uzbeks danced, played, sang and cooked their way into the hearts of the foreign visitors who were there to experience firsthand what this nation has to offer today’s discerning tourists. Food here plays a big part at any occasion and after a few days I was becoming a connoisseur of plov, the famous Uzbek dish of rice, vegetables and meat, usually lamb.
Uzbekistan is 90% Muslim, so I was surprised to find in Samarkand not only the charming Catholic Church of St John the Baptist but next door to it a Russian Orthodox Church and an Armenian Church, the only one of its kind in Central Asia. On Easter Sunday all had their doors open and my guide was more than happy to escort me to visit. The fact that these churches – and not far away, a synagogue, stand side by side with mosques speaks volumes about the rich history of the Uzbeks and also their accepting nature which embraces all cultures and, in 2017, extends a welcoming hand to tourists of all nationalities and creeds.
Islam here is more cultural than religious. Expect to see as many young women in T shirts, jeans or summer dresses as those in more traditional dress and hijab. Alcohol is widely available – the Uzbeks have been producing some of the region’s finest wines for centuries, although their national drink is tea best enjoyed at one of their traditional tea ceremonies.
Yet is the grandeur of the mosques that took my breath away. There are more than 2000 mosques in the country, ranging from the simple to the dazzling.
Uzbekistan Top five:
The highlight of any trip here is the breath-taking Reghistan square in Samarkand , (built between the 15th-17th centuries) a space of majestic madrassas (religious schools) ––the centrepiece of the city, and some say the most awesome sight in Central Asia. The three grand edifices here are among the world’s oldest preserved madrassas, a wealth of azure ceramics, with interiors of gold.
Tashkent– Uzbekistan’s capital – was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1966, while the country was under Soviet rule, but now rebuilt the old and new stand side by side.Dont miss the atmospheric Chorsu Bazaar and the Kukeldash Madrasah, the best known historical monument in town built in the 16th century.
Bukhara. One of the oldest cities in the world, it is home to the Kalon Minaret, one of its defining symbols, built in 1127. At 47 metres high it is thought to have been the tallest building in Central Asia.
Khiva. The walled open-air city of Khiva is a living museum where it seems time has stood still. Protected by UNESCO it is still populated by Uzbek families and businesses. Dating from the 6th century, it was a successful and valued Silk Road trading city – and its ornate mosques, vast mausoleums and madrassas have been painstakingly restored.
Natural wonders. As well as the cities with their fascinating mosques and mausoleums, Uzbekistan has mountain ranges with great skiing, wild open spaces and waterfalls, rivers, lakes and deserts. You can take a jeep safari through the Kyzyl-Kum and Kara Kum Deserts and even stay in a traditional yurt.