An itinerary from my Uzbekistan vacation where I went to discover important cities of the Silk Road: Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.
AsiaUzbekistan12 days / May 2017
Highs & Lows
Walk the streets of Bukhara like in a One Thousand and One Nights tale
It is complicated to change your money into local currency
In spring of 2017 I went to Uzbekistan on vacation to discover three important cities of the Silk Road: Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. I chose May to visit Uzbekistan because I took into consideration the weather conditions. Uzbekistan’s summer heat would be suffocating. We still had some high temperatures of around 40 degrees, so the visits took place mainly in the morning and evening. Coming from Moscow we passed through Almaty, which was also a stopover on the Silk Roads, then we took the plane to Tashkent, the Uzbek capital. We changed our rubles and tenges there for soums, the Uzbek currency, before taking the land for our first stop, Samarkand ...
We started our Uzbekistan vacation in Samarkand. We arrived in Samarkand by regional train from Tashkent. We settled in a randomly chosen hostel near the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum. The hostels are inexpensive, very flowery and very often offer delicious breakfasts. We spent a total of 4 days in Samarkand, which is not much considering the amount of things to see: mausoleums, mosques and madrassas, steeped in history. Of all the cities of Uzbekistan, Samarkand is the one that I found to contain the largest and most impressive buildings. From the outside I was marked by the entrances to the buildings, gigantic doors covered with calligraphy Quranic inscriptions. The domes are also very impressive. As in the other Uzbekistan towns along the Silk Road, the dominant color is too turquoise blue, available in an infinite number of shades. The interiors of these buildings are equally impressive: carved wooden doors and mosaics in bright colors and haunting geometric shapes. We started our visit with the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum which contains the tombs of Timur, alias Tamerlan, the bloodthirsty and feared ruler who made the city great in the 14th century, as well as two of his sons and grandsons. We continued our visit by the Mausoleum of Amir Hussein, the Mausoleum in honor of Tamerlane's sister, the octagonal mausoleum, the gigantic Bibi Khanum mosque and the mausoleum of the same name. Finally we visited the Registan, the trading center of medieval Samarkand. It consists of an enormous set of madrasas, each more beautiful than the other, arranged in a square, with a large square in the center, occupied at the time by a bazaard. Registan is a large square which in the Middle Ages hosted the great bazaar of Samarkand. In the evening, all the Registan madrassas are illuminated, a sight not to be missed under any circumstances. On the last day we went to the Chah-i-Zinda necropolis located northeast of the city. This funeral complex includes many richly decorated mausoleums. We strolled there for a good hour before stopping to admire the sunset from this exceptional point of view which dominates the city.
Bukhara : We arrived in Bukhara by train from Samarkand. We started our visit from the central square of the city: Liab-i-Haouz. It is a beautiful and lively square built around a basin and surrounded by magnificent buildings, including the Koudeldach Madrasa, the largest in the city, the Nadir Divan-Begui Madrasa and the Khanagha of the same name. We stop to eat in one of the many restaurants bordering the basin, protected from the scorching sun (40 degrees!) By the shade of centuries-old mulberry trees. We eat plov and meat kebabs, Uzbek specialties, it's delicious and very cheap!
We will spend 4 days visiting this city which was undoubtedly my favorite of the trip. Strolling between magnificent monuments more than 1000 years old, I felt in full tale of a thousand and one nights. The big difference with Samarkand, where the modern city sprawls between imposing historic buildings, is that downtown Bukhara has retained a true architectural unity and appears to have not changed for centuries. Likewise, unlike Khiva and its historic museum center, the center of Bukhara is still inhabited and very alive. The city also contains the oldest mosque in Central Asia - Maghok-i-Attar - dating from the 9th century. Personally, my favorite building is the Chor Minor Gate with its four narrow minarets and its original and modest form compared to other grandiose buildings in the city. Originally, it was a door leading to a madrasa which has now disappeared. We also enjoyed the visits to the Kalon Mosque, the Mir-i-Arab Madrasa and the Bakha Ad Din complex located one hour by bus from the city.
For the Sunset, our choice fell on a small terrace with a view of the characteristic domes of the jewelers market. An exceptional spectacle.
The last stop on our Uzbekistan vacation was Khiva. We made the trip Bukhara - Khiva by shared taxi in order to be able to stop at three archaeological sites in the Khorezm region (historical region located south of the Aral Sea and of which Khiva is the capital): the citadel of Toprak Qala, the Qyzyl Qala fortress and finally the Ayaz-Kala site which includes three fortresses. After 6 hours of driving, without counting the breaks, we arrive in Khiva, the city at the gates of the desert. The city is very pretty but after seeing Bukhara it seems to lack a bit of authenticity. The old town - “Ichan Kala” - is bounded by mud ramparts while the Soviet-style New Town sprawls around it. While the overwhelming majority of the population lives in the new city, Itchan Kala seems to make its living almost exclusively from tourism, which perhaps owes the city the nickname of "city-museum". It is nonetheless very impressive and constitutes a coherent and well-preserved example of the Muslim architecture of Central Asia. There are several remarkable constructions, palaces, mosques, madrasas and mausoleums. My favorite monuments are the Djouma Mosque, with its 218 wooden columns, each of which is uniquely carved, and the Tach Khaouli Palace with its three beautifully decorated iwans. I also really liked the walk on the ramparts because it offers a view that embraces the whole of the old town. In my opinion the most emblematic monument of the city remains the Kalta Minor minaret (the “short minaret”), due to its original shape, it is small and very large, and its magnificent decorations. It was an ideal landmark for me to orient myself in the city. After 4 days in Khiva we take the taxi to the Urgench airport located 35 km away in order to take a flight back to Tashkent.
Q & A
What would you have changed?I would spend time in villages outside of cities because I think life is very different there and the experience definitely worth it. I would have tried to attend a traditional Uzbek wedding there.
Restaurant recommendations?Uzbekistan food successfully combines sweet and savory. It is mainly based on meat : samosas, plov, shashlik… it’s fairly fatty food but I found it very tasty.
Tips you would give a friend?Don’t spend too much time in Tashkent, it’s a huge and soviet-style city with few old historical monuments. I also recommend changing your money on the black market in order to get an exchange rate much better than the legal exchange rate. It is in principle prohibited but everyone does it.
Packing tips?If you visit Uzbekistan between April and November, you have to plan what is necessary to face the heat. Light bag, hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, etc...
Transportation Tips?If you plan to go to Uzbekistan on vacation you should know that there are two types of trains. A modern, fast and comfortable train, and an older, cheaper and more popular train. Personally, I loved taking the popular train, it is very lively and very colorful.