It’s known as the biggest adventure of all times. When Marco Polo traveled the old Silk Road he cut right through Uzbekistan 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.
1 Bukhara. The 2,500 year old city is probably the best place in the country to soak up traditional Uzbek culture. Here, people are still buying hand-knotted carpets at the bazaars, sipping green tea on tapchan beds, shadowed by large Mulberry trees. Wander the back streets of the old town, where you still have to yield for goats, and catch the sunset over the Kalyan Mosque. Struck with awe, Genghis Khan was so impressed by Bukhara that he decided to spare the city during the Mongol siege in 1220.
2 Samarkand. Built at an old caravan crossroad, Samarkand is in the very heart of the Silk Road in Central Asia. The romantic aura of the city, reflected in the mosaics and sand coloured mosques, creates an almost fantasy like experience. To quote Alexander the Great: “Everything I heard about Samarkand is true, except it’s even more beautiful than imagined”. Something you realize when you face the blue-tiled madrassas at the Registan, known as the most beautiful square in the world.
3 Khiva. Being the most remote of the Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan, the oasis town of Khiva is also the most fascinating. Stepping into the Itchan Kala, the walled inner city, is like entering a movie scene. Camels on the street, old men playing games, and children chasing each other through the dusty roads. It’s one of those places that within 20 years will be ruined by large tourist groups, parking lots, and souvenir vendors.
4 Tashkent. The capital of Uzbekistan offers a different kind of experience. As a former republic of the USSR, Tashkent is a Soviet-era showcase of large boulevards and Stalinist architecture, wrapped up in an oriental setting. Leave your bags at Hotel Uzbekistan, a prime example of Soviet modernism, and visit the turquoise-domed Amir Timur Museum, the nation’s godlike hero of past times. But the most memorable expereince is found in the Tashkent Metro, one of the most spectacular in the world.
5 Karakalpakstan. Driving through western Uzbekistan unfolds the sheer size of the country. Ironically described as two-third desert, and one-third sand, don’t be surprised to see a camel running side by side with your car. Head to Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, to experience daily Uzbek life, far away from the tourists in Samarkand. Go north and you will find the Aral Sea, a giant lake that dried up, leaving hundreds of shipwrecks in the middle of the desert.
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