Uzbekistan is one of only two* double land-locked countries in the world. Hands up who knew this? I didn’t until our guide told us. Shame on me. It is surrounded by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. It became independent from Russia in 1991. We arrived here in May 2014, entering on the overland truck from Turkmenistan, which is one of the strangest countries I think I’ve been to. I’ve written a bit about it here and here, a longer post will follow, soon. We visited the main towns and sights in the two weeks we were here, crossing west to east. These are Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent, finishing our time in the lush (yet conflict-prone) Fergana Valley. Crossing west to east meant we did them in this order, and I’m glad we did. Each town/city offered something new and increased in size and complexity and the Fergana Valley gave us a good indication of the changing landscape we were soon to encounter when we entered Kyrgyzstan.
Whilst quaint and attractive there was something sterile about Khiva. I then found out it had almost totally been rebuilt by the Soviets as a tourist attraction in the 1970s. The old part of the town almost died when the sun went down. Although we were at the tail end of the season there were few tourists and the area within the city walls felt like a place no locals inhabited. It was as if people arrived to start work at a museum at sunrise and left a museum at sunset.
This place looked and felt like a lived-in town. It has beautiful mosques and madrassas, in various states of repair – which felt right.
There was a bustling market, with a gold trading section and (some pretty horrid) jewellery for sale. All staffed and visited by women. In the old part of town is a main square with a small man-made lake. This area came alive at night. It was a wonderful place to sit and idly watch life in Bukhara go by. Children play and the adults stroll by. Ladies and gents are dressed up, chatting and relaxing, bumping into friends, stopping for a chat then moving on. Small groups of teenagers (strictly same sex) go by in their smart new shoes and t-shirts, carefully dodging the children ‘driving’ small electric cars. The cars were controlled remotely by doting family members walking nearby, skilfully avoiding the ankles and toes of passers-by out enjoying the cooler evening weather. I can’t think of anywhere in my home town in England where such an event could take place in this manner, every evening. It was so peaceful and um…even tempered. I can’t describe it. No fairground music, no alcohol. I loved sitting in the square and watching the evening ritual go by. It felt modern yet old-fashioned at the same time. A curious mix.
Probably one of the more well-known cities in Uzbekistan. Samarkand has sweeping French-style boulevards that lead to the main attractions of mosques, Madrassas and Timur’s mausoleum. All the ancient buildings were stunning, and although some repairs and reconstruction had been done over the years (often due to earthquakes) many of the original features remained. We did a six-hour walking tour that finished at Timur’s mausoleum, which was stunningly beautiful inside. Bright blue and gold. And cool. Which was a relief as it was achingly hot.
We saw few other western-looking tourists. Many people stopped and asked to have their photo taken with us. Particularly boys/men asking the men. Aside from us clearly not being Uzbeks I wondered if people were amused to see men in shorts, this is unseen in Central Asia. Along with wearing sunglasses. I saw only one Uzbek wearing sunglasses. How odd, I thought. I wondered why as the sun was very strong. Or perhaps they wanted photos of us because we didn’t have gold teeth. Click a photo below to begin the gallery, this post continues after the gallery:
I didn’t see as much of Tashkent as others, I needed a ‘down day’ in the hotel to catch up on sleep. It seemed I still needed to be wary of how much I do (only 9 weeks following surgery) and the long walking tour the previous day, followed by seven hours on some very bumpy roads to get to Tashkent was taking its toll on me.
I did venture out to Mustakillik (Independence) Square in the evening. We took the metro and I felt transported back to previous visits to Russia. It was strikingly similar, which is hardly unsurprising. It was built in 1977 when Uzbekistan was part of the USSR. The stations are ornate and embellished with metal engravings, granite, marble, glass and ceramics. Many stations are deep underground. A journey costs 80 som (8 pence) and people were very helpful when they saw us wandering with our map. Keen to try their English, but also keen to help us.
The cities of Samarkand and Tashkent and the surrounding landscapes were so different from towns/cities in the west of Uzbekistan, which is dry desert in parts. Yet as we moved north rising up from the plain we became surrounded by hills and mountains, some still with snow. The landscape really is split here in Uzbekistan.
It’s quite a varied country and the lush ‘bread basket’ area of the Fergana Valley is such a stark contrast to the desert areas nearer to Turkmenistan. We needed to go through the Fergana Valley in order to get to the Kyrgyzstan border crossing. The valley is a large triangle-shaped area that spreads out over three countries: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It is an area that has seen recent conflict, for ethnic reasons as well as over water resources. Tour groups are no longer allowed into the region. This meant the truck needed to go on ahead, travelling through the night to prove it was a truck, not a tour bus. Fooled ’em! We took six white taxis from Tashkent and looked like the worst dressed wedding party you’ve ever seen.
We stopped en route at a kind of taxi/truck stop by a major road. Lunch was horrible greasy plov (fried rice and meat) but we did have delicious bowls of cherries to cut through the grease.
You wouldn’t come to Uzbekistan for the food. Unless you’re a carnivore. I think I ate one ‘good’ meal in two weeks, and that was an expensive group meal on the first night in Khiva. Food here is very much focussed on bread and skewered meat. Many of us got sick. I think every day one of us was ‘man down’, including me. The worst symptoms would last a few days, but it hung around for a few weeks for many of us. I think I was affected from the day I arrived until the day I left.
So, in short, I liked Uzbekistan a lot, the people were open and friendly and smiled at us often. They were warm and inviting and welcoming. It was just such a shame the food disagreed with me pretty much the whole time I was here. That and the heat, seemed to get the better of me some days, but it was well worth it.
*FYI Liechtenstein is the other double landlocked country, surrounded by the landlocked countries of Switzerland and Austria. To be classed as double landlocked you need to be surrounded by countries that are landlocked i.e. have no direct access to the sea. Hey…you’ll thank me for this info when it’s the winning question in a pub quiz one day!