Out of all the grand journeys one can take in a lifetime, the Silk Road is suppose to be one of the greatest. Traveling in the footsteps of caravans, religious clerics and hording Mongols is a task left to the greatest of adventures. As a person of Italian descent, the Silk Road has always fascinated me since it was the main conduit for my Roman ancestors and the great dynasties of China to communicate. Though some historians and academics would rather act as if the Silk Road never existed, I still choose to romanticize its existence. Though this route went through a great number of countries, regions and cultures, I think most people associate Silk Road travel to the region of the Central Asian republics. With this said, no country represents the great bazaars and caravans of the Silk Road life as Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan is unique compared to the other Central Asian republics because it is the only republic who’s ancestors settled and build grand cities instead of living a purely nomadic life. The lineage of those in Uzbekistan is as ancient as the Silk Road. Supposedly, the decedents of the great Mongol Blue Horde and under the guidance of the Barbarian or Genius (depends who you ask) Tamerlane the lord of the blue horde, conquered much of Central Asia. During the time of Tamerlane and his sons, the great cities of Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva were erected. Yet despite the beauty of these cites, a shroud of darkness and mystery still surrounds them.
Many people died during the construction of these mausoleums, tombs and mosques; whether the prisoners thrown from the great towers, slaves sold in the great markets of Khiva or peasants killed in defiance of the local ruling lords is up for debate. Alongside this sadness comes a great beauty. The teal tile on these monuments and beautiful blue patterns, whose production has been long forgotten, gives the great Silk Road cities a serenity you do not often experience. As well, despite the desert climate, Uzbeks are expert gardeners and you will realize that hidden behind every gate, wall and courtyard is an oasis. With its roots as a meeting place of peoples from all over Asia, the local culinary traditions are well established. Delicious rice pelov, pickled salads from a lineage of Korean expatriates, and the best Samasa or meat pies make food in Uzbekistan a treat in the region.
Modern Uzbekistan has managed to capitalize on the efforts of its ancestors and is now the most visited of the Stan’s in terms of tourism. The government has invested a fortune into hotels, restaurants and luxury coaches so groups of mostly baby boomers can travel in comfort, and experience this exotic land on their own terms. Though this is convenient, I always find this limiting to your real understanding of a culture and those living there. Many of the tourists I spoke to were not sure what the local currency looked like, what the current events in the country were or ever visited a local market to see how bread changes from city to city. For an oppressive government, this is perfect. Uzbekistan though beautiful and steeped in culture, is one where big brother is watching – police are the most employed industry and stories of genocide are common. Every location has a dark and light side and it is important to experience them independently.
For those who have read my previous articles, I am a big advocate of independent travel and ethical tourism. With this said, I also love adventure so seeing the great Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan was something I could not miss. I was not only determined to backpack the entire route, but visit a small project in the Nuratau Mountains boarding Tajikistan to see how sustainable tourism was surviving in a land of mass travel.
I will admit that as much as I love Central Asia, I did not always like Uzbekistan. This is not a country for the independent traveler, taxies can be aggressive, locals mean and you must register at every hotel or guesthouse you sleep at. If you don’t, heavy fines are associated with everything. Green clad police are everywhere, especially in the capital. Though in the past, police aggression was legendary, Police are no longer allowed to harass travelers for bribes but they will ask for your passport and to see your bag a thousand times a day especially when using the Tashkent Metro. Even worse, the police seem to take this privileged position in society out on the locals from harassing teenagers to small stall owners who do not bend to their demands.
Due to the influx of tourist dollars, you will never ever know how much bread, grapes or anything else costs because the prices change in every city. But what bothered me the most, other than taxi drivers never letting me hop on a bus without trying to drag me off, was how they have turned these Silk Road cities into tourist wonderlands with souvenir shops, western cafes and the like. I hate being negative, but this is a reality that is unfortunate and true for those traveling.
With all that negativity aside, it is still an amazing place. I feel the best way to experience the country is to get off the beaten path and find some people to share the adventure with. In Samarkand, some French tourists and I accidently snuck into the Registan and were invited over to have lunch with a Persian family and went for dinner every night at this restaurant near the bizarre and befriended the cook. In Bukhara, I spoke with young Uzbeks about the economy and learned a lot about the world they live. In Khive, I meet up with a fellow Canadian and Japanese tourist to visit ancient ruins around the city.
The Sustainable Tour Project was an amazing adventure as well. The Nuratau Mountains are located in between Samarakant and Buhara. Having stopped off in multiple cities, negotiated with lots of cabbies and getting lost multiple times, a friend and I finally found the project. Located in a bio-reserve famous for its unique animal and plant species, the German NGO the GIZ , German Society for International Cooperation, is trying to use sustainable tourism to help a group of displaced Tajiks living in the region. A series of guesthouses, folklore performances and donkey treks are waiting for any traveler who makes the journey. As I learned while speaking to the wonderful couple running the project, the locals build most of the projects and guesthouses themselves, leaving the grant money to build business and other infrastructures. But with all their hard work, tourists were not visiting. Do to their location out of government control; the local administration has made it very hard to gain permission to register guests. However, groups of tourists were able to make day trips due to a bureaucratic loophole. I really enjoyed the evening I spent on sight, though I was deadly sick, lying under the stars, hanging out with locals and just seeing a part of the country few get to was great! Next time, maybe I will try a donkey ride!
Some words of advice: Though it is tempting to rush through the country seeing all the famous sights and not wondering out of the designated tourist areas, I had my best adventures wondering into bazaar’s and areas not meant for tourists. The old town in Samarkand and new town in Bukhara should not be missed because this is where people live there day-to-day lives and where getting connected to that Central Asian hospitality can be found. I think my two favorite cities in the entire country have little to no tourism.
Urgench, to me, was heaven with no tourists visiting I enjoyed wandering bazaars, made friends with the ladies selling persimmons who nicknamed me “Michael Jackson,” found a couple of local restaurants where I got to know the families running them, and fell in love with the women working in the train station who helped me organize my train for Kazakhstan. Nukus is also a great place on the Kazakh boarder. Here the damage of the Areal Sea can be seen the most and its impact on the inhabitants is most destructive. But the city itself houses great restaurants, guesthouses and the best art museum in Central Asia. The Savisky Museum was like a Soviet secret – here an eclectic collector stored all the great works of Central Asia, with exhibits that are constantly changing, the art shows sides of the region only an artist can capture. Many of the Uzbek paintings made me sad, with images of fishermen and Silk Road caravans that have been wiped out in the name of progression, never to be seen again outside of the canvas before me.
Uzbekistan was not what I expected as the road less traveled is not an easy one to find. Kind locals eager to share bread and stories balanced crazy taxi drivers, and I have to admit, I fell in love more than a couple times and not only with the women. The stars and perseverance of those trying to improve their lives in an oppressed system, especially in Nuratau. Though some sites were a disappointment, I will never get used to the black market exchange rates, the people and glorious food.Share This: