My first impressions of Uzbekistan were that people don’t believe in the concept of queuing, have terrible taste in music and yet are some of the friendliest people imaginable. I was never hassled and felt incredibly safe in what I had previously imagined might be a scary place to travel. I even achieved celebrity status whilst in Khiva! Where a group of teenagers on a school trip each wanted a photo taken with me! I of course obliged.
My journey was to follow part of the ancient SIlk Road which of course spans from China to Europe, so the stretch I was to tackle through Uzbekistan was a very small and interesting part. Each place I visited had a different personality. Tashkent was a sprawling Soviet style metropolis complete with large squares, huge parks festooned with pine trees and fountains, wide avenues and splendidly ornamental metro stations reminiscent of those in Moscow. My time was short in Tashkent, however it made me realise how populous London is by comparison.
Khiva, my favourite city, was truly magical and could have been used as a set for the Arabian Nights. After a short flight from Tashkent to Urgench followed by a forty minute drive to Khiva I found myself in medieval walled town with turquoise and blue domed minarets and mosaic covered madrassas a-plenty, tea houses serving green tea, ‘zilony chai’, to wash down the local speciality of oily rice and mutton, ‘pilov’, and a dusty local market that I imagined being on the location of an old trading post along the Silk Road. Ruddy cheeked locals sold everything from bundles of socks to plastic sheets used to protect windows from the desert winds to fresh fruit and vegetables. The best time to explore Khiva was without doubt before breakfast as the souvenir puppet and furry hat sellers were still sleeping and hadn’t yet set up their stalls. It felt like a wonderful step back in time as I meandered through the narrow alleyways of the tiny walled city.
Bukhara was a real surprise, as I had not expected to find cafes with tables and chairs set around a city pond, in the Lyab-i Hauz area, complete with a weeping willow tree and life size plastic camels – popular with local tourists! Whilst Bukhara was once a completely walled city and somewhat bigger than Khiva only part of the walls remain. For shopping, Buhkara had the edge on anywhere else. The trading domes from ancient times are still trading domes today and bartering for wall hangings, tourist souvenirs, ceramics or expensive silk handmade carpets was order of the day. Begin at a third of what is offered…
Finally Samarkand was truly a revelation! Such a cosmopolitan and attractive city, boasting grand buildings and wide tree-lined avenues; and home to the ancient and epic Registan Square, with is supersized monuments, and my favourite site in Uzbekistan, Shah-i-Zinda, a mausoleum complex on a hill where you step out of the city and step into another era. Whilst the ceramic mosaics were undeniably beautiful, the atmosphere of the place was the clincher, as it had an ethereal feel. I found myself in awe. The locals play a game there so I did too. You make a wish at the foot of the stairs leading to the entrance of the mausoleum, then count each step on the way up. If you count the same number of steps on the way down then your wish will come true. And it did!