We’d been told that Uzbekistan was hot, and it didn’t disappoint. Arriving in Samarkand, the first city on our whirlwind three-stop Silk Road city tour, the thermometer hit 38C. It reached this, or more, every day in the country, quite a shock after the pleasant warmth and cool nights of the mountains.
Samarkand, the jewel of Timur’s central asian empire, is the postcard city of the Silk Road with its colourfully restored medressas, minarets and mausoleums. The scale of the brightly tiled 15th and 16th century arches, towers and domes is stunning, with many leaning at unlikely angles due to earthquake damage, giving a slightly Escher-esque appearance. Much of the impressive restoration was done by the Russians during Soviet days, though they took the odd liberty including the addition of a dome where none had existed originally. Though the city centre is openly set up for tourism, with overpriced souvenir shops sadly occupying many of the old student bedrooms within the medressas and electric buses transporting sightseers along the otherwise pedestrian promenade between the main sights, the steps overlooking the Registan fill with locals after dark, socialising under the floodlit attractions. We wandered around by night, and again the next morning, taking in the Registan, Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Shah-i-Zinda and Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum before the heat got the better of us.
An unpleasant four hour drive took us to Bokhara. I say unpleasant, because whilst the drivers throughout Central Asia have been unpredictable and erratic, in Uzbekistan they are also openly aggressive. Their main aim appears to be run whoever is in front of them off the road, and we witnessed some horrendous near misses. Whilst people have been interested in us and the car in previous countries, a quick smile and wave has been met with enthusiastic waves and toots. Not so here, where the drivers enjoy boxing you in behind a truck or tractor, whilst staring unpleasantly then turning away or accelerating past when you smile or wave. We were glad to reach our accommodation in Bokhara, an old Jewish town house run by a very friendly if slightly disorganised local family.
Bokhara is much more intimate than Samarkand, and the buildings have been less dramatically renovated. The city centre feels more ‘lived-in’ and genuine, with the narrow dusty streets of the old town running right off the main square and housing plenty of local families, shops and bakeries, as well as many guest houses. New hotels are being built everywhere however, apparently for an expected influx of Chinese tourists in coming years, so the city is set to change dramatically. As well as strolling through the streets, taking in the tiled medressas, stunning Kalon Minaret and the Ark (a royal enclave within the town) we paid a quick visit to the jail, or Zindon, scene of the brutal imprisonment and execution of British officers Stoddart and Connelly in Great Game days.
Our final city stop was Khiva, famed in the 19th century for its slave trade fuelled by Turkmen tribes that attacked lonely caravans travelling across the steppe. It is the smallest of the three cities, with its Inchon-Qala (inner walled city) and imposing mud walls, though felt the most like a museum-city, with little local activity other than the hawkers. We have to confess, we felt like we’d seen enough tiles and turrets and after one night and a wander around the city and the top of the wall we decided to move on. We also felt we’d had enough of being used, something we hadn’t experienced before on this trip. Uzbekistan has clearly embraced tourism wholeheartedly and it is an important industry for the country, as with all the others we have passed through. But whilst on our travels thus far we have felt genuinely welcomed, here we have felt like a commodity, to be extorted and abused at every opportunity. It has made it our least favourite country, a feeling shared by other travellers we have met, though we have only visited cities and have rushed through so we may be being unfair. Regardless, we were glad to be heading through the flat and largely empty (though much friendlier!) district of Karakalpakstan, past the turn off to the ever-shrinking south Aral Sea, drained of water by the soviets for cotton farming, and on to west Kazakhstan where we were aiming for Aktau and the ferry across the Caspian Sea.