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Published: January 6th 2020
Mixed feelings about Uzbekistan. We’d saved it until last, partly to allow temperatures to drop into September (and so that we got higher temperatures in Kyrgyzstan by going there in August which we needed in the high mountains), and partly because we expected it to be the highlight of Central Asia. In some ways it was; many of the ancient Silk Road cities are beautiful and the people were extremely hospitable. However, most tourists are retirees on coach tours and tourism in Uzbekistan seems to be entirely geared towards them.
Uzbekistan shows off some of humanities greatest constructions in the wonderful madrasahs, mosques and mausoleums of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Uzbekistan also shows off some of humanities most shameful endeavours when you contemplate the rusting ships within sandy plains that were once the Aral Sea. We thought it pertinent to visit both sides.
Nukus, in the far northwest of the country, is a long way from anywhere. It is the capital of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region with designs of breaking away; though don’t encourage anyone to talk about this unless they volunteer to as such a conversation could get them in a
lot of trouble. It is a hot, dusty, barren region, particularly since the almost complete disappearance of the Aral Sea.
You probably know the story already: The Soviets decided that arid Uzbekistan would be a great place to grow one of the world’s most water-intensive crops: cotton. The once mighty Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers, known to the ancients as the Oxus and Jaxartes Rivers, flowing from the Hindu Kush and Tien Shan Mountains, were diverted for irrigation in the 1960s. The lake has consequently shrunk from 68000 km2
in 1960 to two separate lakes with a combined area of only about 6000 km2
today. As well as destroying a productive fishing industry and marooning fishing towns, harbours and canning factories 100s km from the shore, losing the lake has changed the climate, it now being hotter and drier.
From Nukus we visited Moynaq; a former fishing port now in the middle of a desert and home to the much photographed “ship cemetery”. It was sad to look out into the desert surroundings and contemplate what it once was. However, surprisingly, Moynaq town was looking well with much investment and new construction.
In addition to being
the gateway to the former Aral Sea, Nukus is home to the remarkable Savitsky Art Gallery. The gallery houses the world’s largest collection of art that was banned under Stalin. The collection was started by an electrician (Savitsky) in the 1950s, who got away with it because he was so remote from Moscow. All styles other than Socialist Realism were deemed illegal and the artists of many of the works were imprisoned in gulags, tortured or killed. You’ll find impressionism, futurism, and various avant garde stuff critical of the regime. It is definitely worth calling in.
Trains are very good in Uzbekistan; especially in between the main Silk Road towns that everyone visits. In addition to high-speed trains close to Tashkent, some of the trains we took had come all the way from Russia and, as on the Trans-Siberian Railway, we were offered various foods by fellow passengers, some of whom weren’t even in our part of the carriage but they sent children down to us carrying food. The trains are less frequent in the far northwest, but long-distance taxis are a viable option, being reasonably priced and allowing stops on the way. That’s how we got
to and from Moynaq, and also how we got from Nukus to Khiva.
Nukus to Khiva may at first glance seem a long day of nothingness through the desert. However, there are qalas. These are ruined forts, palaces and religious sites that are dotted around and while only twenty are now visible, there are thought to be a lot more buried under shifting sands. The area used to be much milder and greener when these places were occupied from around 500BC and for around a thousand years. They were generally built of clay on hilltops and at some there is little remaining so you really have to use your imagination (though the desert views are still great) while at others the thick walls and layouts of rooms are still visible. Thankfully, all but one had been in any way restored/rebuilt (and that one was our least favourite) though we worry it is coming given the Uzbekistan government’s tourism policy. As well as breaking up the journey, we had these sites largely to ourselves, though the qalas nearest to Khiva brought us our first taste of Uzbekistan coach tours.
The majority of tourists in Uzbekistan seem to
be retirees and they are bussed around the main Silk Road cities on air-conditioned coaches, often then taking electric golf buggies to get in between sights. This seems to be the type of tourist the government wishes to attract based on the construction works going on. My Lonely Planet guide to Central Asia had been picked up a few years ago from a second-hand bookshop so was now more than ten years out of date. What on my guidebook’s maps were markets and housing were now demolished to make way for gardens surrounding all the main sights with large car parks and walkways – or electric buggyways. The coach tours stay on the edge of town in big hotels and are bussed directly to the Old Town or other historic sight, where all traces of actual Uzbek life has been removed. While the madrasahs, palaces and mosques are amazing, they have, in our opinion, been overly restored when you see photos of their fairly decrepit state as recently as the 1960s. The Russians started doing them up and this was zealously continued following independence in 1990. I agree with the need to conserve places for current and future generations but
I find such thorough rebuilds a bit false.
Khiva was our first of the famous cities. Its walled old town is lovely but you don’t need long to look around. There are a lot of museums for which entrance is included in the main Khiva ticket, though you find yourself going in them just because you have a ticket and the contents are unremarkable. It’s especially nice to amble around at night when little is open and few people are about. We enjoyed staying just outside the massive town walls and eating big fatty shashliks and large plates of plov; that’s pretty much all we ate while in Uzbekistan!
Next stop was Bukhara. It is much bigger than Khiva though can still be strolled around. As with Khiva, the markets recommended in various online travelblogs had been bulldozed. Meanwhile, the sights and the areas between them were perfectly (re)built and spotless. While Bukhara is beautiful, we found it a little too sterilised. It could be a recently built Silk Road Theme Park. What also disappointed us was the souvenir stalls. There is no hard sell like you get in many touristic parts of the
world. At least, there wasn’t with us. Groups of elderly folk following a tour guide with a flag were the targets. The souvenirs on offer are also really nice; fantastic carpets, really nice crockery, and various other arts and crafts. The problem was that the ancient bazaars and madrasahs are now given over to these souvenir stalls. Even when you have paid to get inside a palace or citadel, the courtyards within are filled with the same stalls. And they all sell the same stuff.
Samarkand was probably our favourite of the Silk Road cities. Partly because of where we stayed. On arrival at our guesthouse we were told our room had a leak and they were otherwise full, however, there was a room free at his brother’s place around the corner. I was immediately suspicious but he took us to the room, showed us the leak, then another little brother took us to big brother’s house and it was much nicer than the original guesthouse we had booked. The family were extremely generous and invited us to treat the place like home. It was a kind of guesthouse as there were also two Ukrainians staying there
who had driven from Lviv. The boxes of wine in their car were actually cunningly refilled boxes of surprising good Ukrainian brandy and every night we stayed up with them and the family sharing travel tales and playing youtube music videos in the huge courtyard. That was after going out to feast on shashlik. I’ve never eaten so much meat as in Uzbekistan (except maybe in South Africa)!
Samarkand’s sights are incredible. These are the intricately blue-tiled mosques and mausoleums that you see in your mind’s eye when you think about Uzbekistan or about what’s left of the Silk Road. It seems that Samarkand was first to get the renovation treatment as the trees and gardens are now mature enough to offer welcome shade – no recent bulldozer work in sight. The Registan is rightfully the most famous spot and we found ourselves just sitting gazing at it quite frequently, especially at night, with or without the slightly propaganda-y but better than expected light show.
For most of Uzbekistan, we donned long trousers, covered shoulders and Magdalena carried a headscarf for wearing in mosques. This is not a requirement and most foreign tourists didn’t. However, I
don’t know if any locals were actually offended but it wasn’t uncommon to come across tourists draping themselves across tombs in mausoleums for photos while wearing hot pants. A little disrespectful, no?
A shared taxi daytrip from Samarkand took us over the mountains to Shakhrisabz. This is the birthplace of Tamerlane/Timur. As well as being a very effective general and conqueror giving him a huge empire across Central Asia in the 14th
century, his patronage of arts and architecture led to the construction of the beautiful cities found in this part of the world. Again, we found the town around the tourist sights had been razed and in its place was now a baking hot area of parks and squares with little shade and not yet plumbed in fountains and souvenir arcades waiting to be occupied. We had to walk a long way to the actual town to find some people and something to eat.
A very quick note on Tashkent; there are no real sights but the big markets are great and it is a pleasant enough place. Getting hold of cash is not much easier though than elsewhere in the country. Be
aware when travelling in Uzbekistan that cards are almost never accepted and it is tricky to find ATMs that accept foreign cards. Even when you have found one, the maximum quantity you can draw out is small. Asaka Bank was our lifesaver.
With a spare day before leaving we attempted to go hiking. The extreme northeast of the country is home to the Chimgan Mountains, rising up to over 3300 m; this being the western end of the Tien Shan. Whereas in Kazakhstan, and especially in Kyrgyzstan, there is a culture and tourism industry of hiking, this is not the case in Uzbekistan. Locals aren’t interested and tourists don’t want to go far from their air-conditioned coach. Consequently, we had to get a taxi the 80 km into the mountains, but did manage to get two shared taxis back at a fraction of the cost of getting there. Whereas for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan there are multiple online travelblogs offering a wealth of hiking routes and information, that isn’t the case here. Thus, I planned a route using, the usually pretty good in this part of the world, maps.me. Our path up the valley was clear enough but
as it got steeper and the scenery became more dramatic the path petered out. After scrambling up a waterfall then a steep loose slope we realised what we were doing was foolish so dropped back to the main valley where we’d seen another hiker heading up the boulder-filled dry streambed. We followed him. Turns out he was a Russian who had been born in Uzbekistan but left, along with most other Russians, upon independence. He was visiting Uzbekistan for a holiday and hiking some of his old routes. He showed us the way up a quite sketchy path to an old molybdenum mine (I’d found and fondled a piece of shiny heavy ore and had guessed lead so I wasn’t too far out). It ended up being a nice hike, though shorter than what we were after. We met other travellers in Tashkent who had similar experiences to us attempting to go hiking. They had tried and failed to get maps then had taken ski lifts up to beautiful spots in the mountains but once up there, there were no paths, no signs, nowt.
Attempting to choose photos for this blog is reminding me that Uzbekistan is
beautiful and writing this is reminding me of the beauty of the people. Several times we were stopped in the street just for people to welcome us to their country and who offered us any help we may need; typically leading to great recommendations for where to get lunch. The brightly coloured dress of the local women, the abundant smiles, and the hospitality we received in guesthouses were all wonderful. It’s a shame that most of the tourists here will only experience real and current Uzbekistan through a bus window. And it’s a shame that it seems to be official policy to discourage such interactions.
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