After visiting Mongolia last Summer, we decided to explore a little further the Silk Road and picked Uzbekistan as our next destination. We didn't really know what to expect: different sources gave us different opinions and we were unsure of what it would have been like.
We found a country full of architectural beauty, a lot of tradition, amazing food and colours. Still quite genuine, tourism hasn't spoiled it that much yet ... unfortunately looked like only big groups of people in their 50s/60s are willing to travel to this country. It is affordable and it is suitable for both solo travellers, women, families and, of course, groups of any age.
Tashkent: it's the capital city and one of the largest cities in Central Asia. Worth a quick stop but don't spend too much time. The gardens and parks around the presidential buildings are very enjoyable and well maintained. Near the Chorsu Bazaar is the best part of town both because of the few remaining historical buildings are around, as well as for the market itself.
Samarkand: do not underestimate the distance here if you are on foot. It's truly impressive to stand in front of the Registan and look at the magnificent madrasas. It's indeed one of the most impressive square in the World. But even more impressive and fascinating is the Shah-I-Zinda mausoleum. The Bibi Khanyum Mosque is the third landmark and can't be missed. Two other documents are less appealing (unless you are an archeologist or an historian) but are still worth a visit: the Afrosiab ruins and the Ulug Beg observatory. Samarkand's history starts probably 3 millennia ago. The old Marqand was conquered by Alexander the Great. The it flourished as one of the major trading points along the Silk Road under the Sogdians and the Persians. When the arabs came in the region, it continue flourishing and its grandeur survived also the Mongol invasion. Infact, not long thereafter, it was the capital of the Timurid Empire that dominated Central Asia from Turkey to India at the end of the 14th century
Bukhara: different from Samarkand, Bukhara landmarks are less impressive but the entire historical center has been kept almost intact. People still live in the old town and enjoy the evening at the Lyabi Hauz. Bukhara will also give you a taste not only of the Silk Road, but also of the Great Game. The Ark fortress has impressive walls, but the madrasas here are the most interest. Our favourite has been the Abdullah Khan Madrasa.
Khiva: the old citadel of Khiva (the so-called Ichon Qala) is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. So many monuments are packed within it walls: 2 royal palace, 3 minarets and several mosques and madrasas. Khiva may see a museum for tourists during the day, but in reality has its own soul. You can feel it early morning of after sunset, before the tourists hit the road or by the weddings that took place every day on its streets.
Our travel to Uzbekistan was highly enriched by the following books. In order of preference
Murder in Samarkand by Craig Murray: former UK ambassador in Uzbekistan under Tony Blair period denounces how US and UK supported the use of torture against Muslim by the Karimov regime. It also explain how the Uzbek economy is controlled by the Karimov family at expenses of 35 million individuals. It was an eye opener. If you visit Uzbekistan as a tourist you won't be easily able to understand the reality behind. This book gives you that. In addition is also an heroic fight between an individual and the organisation he works for when the latter ask him to do something ethically unacceptable. Can apply to many of us in both private and public sectors.
The Great Game by Peter Horpkirk: fascinating spy game story between Russia and the British empire in the 19th century. Tales of fearless explorers who adventured in these unknown lands.
Silk Road by Peter Frankopan: gives you the full historical background on the Silk Road and his importance in shaping human history beyond we could normally imagine.
Itinerary: we spent 10 days: 1 day in Tashkent, 2 days in Samarkand, 1.5 in Bukhara, 1.5 day in the Khorzem, 3 in Khiva and 1 day to come back to Tashkent. It gives you ample time. Ex-post, we only made an error to dedicate only one and half day to Bukhara as we were unable to see the monuments in the countryside
Flights: direct flights from London with Uzbekistan Airways. 7 hours for £400 with no flight entertainment
Transport: train is perfect. We had a travel agency (Salom Travel) booking for us the tickets in advance and delivering to our hotel in Tashkent. In addition, you need a tour or a driver to visit the Khorzem fortresses. We also relied on the same agency. We highly recommend Salom Travel
Food: amazing food for max $5 per person. We ate a lot at the kiosks in the various bazaar for much less than that. Everything is very tasteful, not only the meat, but also the vegs, the dumplings and the local spaghetti (nothing to do with Chinese noodles)
Safety: super safe
Locals: extremely friendly. Especially the younger, they will try to exchange a word or two in English. Uzbekistan is very isolated and not many foreigners are around. As result locals have not been westernized. E.g. all women still wear traditional dresses and you won't hear Justin Bibier around but rather Russian songs or Uzber traditional music. Some taxi drivers and ticket officers will try to squeeze a couple of dollars out of you but nothing that will bore you too much