Of all countries in Central Asia, Uzbekistan is probably the premier sightseeing destination. The fantastic mosques, madrassas and mausoleums in Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand exceeded each other in size and beauty. And even for us, who have just travelled Iran three weeks ago and already had our fair share in impressive medieval Islamic architecture, Uzbekistan’s monuments never failed to amaze. Uzbekistan’s ancient wealth stems partly from the fact that it lied in the center of a system of trading routes, which linked China to the West, the Silk Road. And even today, Uzbek people are very entrepreneurial, which led to several truly bizarre encounters with locals.
One major change happened in Uzbekistan: For the first time we were not travelling only the two of us, but we teamed up with a Belgian and an Italian, David and Stefano!
Here they are:
Karakalpakistan and the Aral Sea
Luckily for us, we did not hit the touristic centers of Uzbekistan straight away, but instead arrived in Karakalpakistan after a disastrous train ride or we probably wouldn’t have been able to handle it. Moynaq, the town we spend our first two nights, kind of fit our mood: It definitely has seen better days.
The fate of Moynaq is deeply connected to our first destination in Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea has once been one of the world’s largest lakes, but at some point, the Soviets decided to divert the incoming river water with canals to plant cotton. As a result of the lacking water supply, the lake began to shrink and today, it reaches merely 10% of its original size, making it one of the greatest ecological catastrophes ever. Moynaq itself was a former fishing town, but all that remains are a graveyard of rusting ships and a number of empty fish factories.
The Aral Sea itself has moved some 150 km north of Moynaq and on our second day, we set out with a private driver. We arranged the driver through our homestay run by Timur and his family, who gave us a really authentic experience into the lives of people in that region. The remains of the Aral Sea proved to be much more beautiful than what we have expected. Apart from three Russian tourists and the operators of a yurt stay, we were the only ones anywhere near the Aral Sea.
Although it looks like a sandy beach, going into the water actually requires crossing a knee-deep mud field. The water itself is very salty, which was to be expected since the lake shrank so much from its actual size. This result is an effect similar to the Dead Sea, you basically float. After the train ride through Karakalpakistan and the desolation of Moynaq, the Aral Sea definitely was a welcome diversion “off-the-beaten-track”.
Having travelled the “dying town” (as Lonely Planet describes it) of Moynaq, arriving in the old town of Khiva felt like entering another world. Surrounded by medieval city walls and filled with narrow alleys and clay-walled houses, Khiva invites for pleasant strolls and souvenir shopping (or just looking – our backpacks don’t allow for actual shopping). Climbing up the city walls the first evening and admiring the beautiful sunset above the picturesque minarets, mosques and mausoleums was simply magical.
Maybe the best part of Khiva was however just a little bit away from the old town. In little alleys untouched by touristic Khiva, we found some craftsmen carving impressive patterns into wooden chessboards. Although only a small glimpse, we felt that these craftsmen represented a more authentic lifestyle of people in Khiva, away from the touristic bubble.
Uzbek people in general were some of the most guest-friendly people we have met on our travel, although sometimes a little bit too entrepreneurial. For instance, when checking into the hostel, the manager showed us our room and asked us, how many days we wanted to stay. We weren’t sure whether it would be one or two nights but suddenly the manager insisted that David and Stefano had already booked for two nights. So we also agreed to stay for two nights only to find out that David and Stefano hadn’t arranged anything at all. Basically the same thing happened with everything from doing laundry to changing money to buying post cards. Every time, they tried to squeeze out a little bit of advantage, sometimes by straight-out lying to your face.
Though Khiva itself is definitely the biggest touristic draw of the Khorezm region, the countryside is dotted with quite unexpected sights. Apparently, there are more than fifty ancient castles (hence the name “Eliq Qala”, which means fifty castles) in the region – just at the edge of cotton fields and desert. The afternoon of the second day, the four of us hired a driver to visit three of these structures. Though the castles were hardly more than ruins, one could easily guess how complex and beautiful these structures must have been in the past.
Would these castles be located somewhere in Europe, you could probably hardly see anything but tourists, cameras and wouldn’t be allowed to enter or climb on anything to preserve the archeological sites. Of course it’s sad seeing the castles’ sandy walls slowly falling apart, it felt adventurous and was simply beautiful to explore the old ruins, climbing on walls and enjoying the sunset view.
The next stop on our city-hopping through Uzbekistan was Bukhara, literally the center of the Silk Road. Bukhara was like a bigger version of Khiva: The old town was a little bit more spread out and lacked those small alleys which gave Khiva its cozy atmosphere. But the sights were also much more grandiose. Maybe the only disappointment was the castle called Ark, which looked really impressive from the outside but contained mostly rather uninformative museums inside.
Though the sites in Bukhara really left us in awe, the most amazing experience may have been our second dinner in the city. The manager of our hostel also happened to be a seasoned cook, who has travelled the world preparing his signature dish “Plov”. It is basically a rice stew with meat, some vegetables and lots of exotic spices that you can get almost everywhere in Central Asia. On the second day, he asked us whether we wanted to try out his masterpiece and obviously we agreed. Even watching the preparation of the dish was already amazing! And upon eating the result we decided that getting Plov in any other place would probably leave us really sad. There is no chance it will get any close to the one we had in Bukhara.
From Bukhara, the major cities in Uzbekistan are connected by a brand new high-speed train and this also was an experience we didn’t want to miss (especially with our backpacks, long taxi rides were really uncomfortable). Our opinion of the train: Deutsche Bahn could learn a lesson or too. The trains were incredibly spacious even in second class and had huge overhead spaces for luggage. There was even a cocktail bar in the train. After arriving in Samarkand after only 1h 30 min (for 300 Km), we all felt the train ride ended too quickly.
After Bukhara, we felt like there was not much Samarkand could give us in terms of sightseeing. We were so wrong! Samarkand’s landmarks and monuments are superlatives, a league of their own, comparable only to places such as the Vatican, Petra and the Great Wall and Forbidden City of China. After Samarkand, we decided that there are probably no Islamic buildings anywhere in the world that would impress us.
Apart from the monuments, Samarkand was a very well organized and clean modern city, but definitely lacking the flair of Khiva or even Bukhara. The streets were just a little bit too polished and it was obvious that large parts of the city were designed with tourists in mind. This also led to a quite bizarre phenomenon. On the façade of the Registon (Samarkand’s biggest touristic attraction), they would perform a 3D laser show at night. We don’t really know what was 3D about it, but the show was basically an Uzbek propaganda video in English projected onto the Registon.
Sadly, we had to leave Samarkand way too fast as we want to cross Tajikistan on the Pamir Highway through the mountains before it gets too cold. Like they say, winter is coming.
Kevin and Nicole, written in Dushanbe