It’s known as the biggest adventure of all times. When Marco Polo traveled the Old Silk Road he cut right through Central Asia and the ancient cities of Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand. What he discovered? Places totally unknown to the western world. Astonishing architecture, exotic food, and the most beautiful square in the world. Today, 750 years later, few things have changed.
It took six hours to cross the Karakum Desert and get to the Uzbekistan border. I had read all kind of stories about the border controls when you enter the country by land. It can be a real hassle. They strip your clothes, go through your camera, or just want some money for the ”service”. But the reward that awaits on the other side, only few can tell. Mother Fortuna favours the bold.
I was on my way from Nukus to Samarkand, the oldest and most mythical of the Silk Road cities. A long and lonely drive through a dry deserted landscape, nothing slowed us you down except the occasional group of camels crossing the road. A couple of men hitchhiking, forming an upside down V-sign against the road. A thumbs-up means something completely different here. I suddenly understood the irony in the saying that Uzbekistan is two-third desert, and one-third sand.
We crossed the terra nullius by foot. A ten minute desert walk through no man’s land. The guards smiled at us as we arrived to the other side. Welcome to Uzbekistan!
I pulled down my window. A stream of hot air filled the car. It was in the middle of July and almost 50 degrees Celsius, we could literally have fried an egg on the hood of the car. Not exactly the best time to visit. Needless to say, the convenient way to travel the Silk Road is to go in mid-spring or early fall, fly to Tashkent and take the high-speed train to Samarkand. But hey, you’ll miss half the fun.
The city walls of Khiva welcomed us just before sunset. The oasis caravan town is the most remote of the Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan, but also the most fascinating. The inner city, called Ichan Kala, surrounds itself by an eight meter sand coloured wall. Hidden inside, a myriad of dusty streets and crossroads that teleports the visitor to a time long lost to the western world.
It was early morning and I was on my way to Kalta Minor, the most iconic building in Khiva. That’s when I met the Italians. “Buongiorno!”, they shouted, as they were happy to see another westerner. Sitting in the shadow outside a madrasa, the Arabic word for school, they suddenly approached me. What were they doing there?
The heart of the Silk Road is situated in a country nobody knows anything about, in a region no one travels to.
I soon found out. They were creating an adventure of their own. A three month trip from Rome in Italy to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia in a 1960 Volkswagen Beetle, as part of a fashion marketing campaign. And Central Asia was just the perfect spot to spice up the journey. You do meet a lot of interesting people when you travel the world.
It’s a three week camel ride from Khiva to Bukhara. Alternatively, you call a local taxi and drive there in six hours. Compared to Khiva, Bukhara is a much more developed city. It’s also one of best places to soak up authentic Central Asian culture. So take the chance to visit one of the many tea houses, lay down on a traditional tapchan, and taste some Laghman – the region’s signature dish, made of pulled noodles, lamb, and vegetables.
Walking around Bukhara is a bit like waking up in a dream, and don’t really know where you are. You will be mentally teleported to an Arabic tale, an episode of One thousand and One Night. Grand mosques, turquoise rising domes, and fantasy like squares. And when night falls, a starry sky will glimmer above your head as the small bazaars start to pop up on the streets.
Simply called the Registan, meaning “sandy place” or “desert” in Persian, the main square of Samarkand is known as the most beautiful in the world. To quote Alexander the Great: “Everything I heard about Samarkand is true, except it’s even more beautiful than imagined”. It’s hard to disagree. The Registan square is the heart of the Silk Road in Central Asia and a truly magnificent place.
The Registan in Samarkand is known as the most beautiful square in the world.
The Silk Road got its name from the old trade route between East Asia and Europe, when silk was sent from Xian in China to the harbors of Venice. Half way of the long and dangerous route was Samarkand, a flourishing trade crossroad for more than 2,500 years. Located in the homeland of Timur, the region’s greatest warrior of all times, the city has since been rewarded with some of the finest architecture in the world.
The most unique place in Samarkand is the Gur-Emir, Timur’s mausoleum and final resting place. Something you first realize when you enter through the modest arch and into a dome of sparkling gold, decorated in perfect symmetry by azure blue ornaments and glimmering yellow calligraphy. A thin ray of light flow into the building from the small windows, making the ceiling radiate over your head as a bright sun on a clear blue sky. Something every dedicated world traveler should see.
All text and images Copyright © 2021 Erik Ekberger.
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