July 6, 2012
Uzbekistan has been long synonymous with the Silk Road. It was not just one road but a series of routes, splitting apart and coming back together, which wound around deserts and over mountain passes. Linking the civilizations of the East and West, trade and information flowed back and forth along these routes from the 2nd to 13th centuries. In the middle of the Silk Road was Central Asia. In fact, the Uzbekistan cities of Samarkand and Bukhara were roughly at the halfway point of the entire route, and therefore became important Silk Road destinations in their own right. Another Uzbekistan city, Khiva, was located on a branch of a Silk Road route that headed into Russia.
After leaving Samarkand we split our time between the Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Khiva and the rural village countryside. The Nuratau Mountains, located between Samarkand and Bukhara, has its own historical artifacts, including ruins of an Alexander the Great fortress and petroglyphs, but it is also the gateway to the Kyzyl Kum Desert, which is the 11th largest in the world. Using a local guide, we plotted a three-day itinerary to learn more about this rural area and its present-day people.
In the mountain foothills of this dry and hot region are a series of villages that have created guesthouses adjacent to their homes under a United Nations Development Program-sponsored ‘cultural tourism’ project. We stayed with a family in the village of Asraf. While there, we were able to take a walking tour of the village. Residents here are either herders or farmers. Buildings are constructed from mud bricks and many times we saw fruit, such as apricots, drying on top of roofs.
Back at the guesthouse we relaxed and ate dinner next to a small stream separating our building from the family’s living quarters. We observed the family going about their daily activities, including cow milking and farming in their garden containing peach, apple, mulberry, pomegranate and walnut trees. The guest house was basic, but comfortable, as we slept on a pile of mattresses in one of four rooms with a bathroom and shower located just outside the building.
Our next stop was a yurt camp in the desert. This was a different experience than we had in Kyrgyzstan. In Uzbekistan, yurts are covered with camel-hair, compared to Kyrgyzstan yurts that are made of yak-hair or sheep-wool. Instead of camping next to a lake with temperatures being near freezing at night in Kyrgyzstan, we were in the desert where it was over 100 F / 38 C during the day in Uzbekistan (and pretty hot at night too!).
We had several opportunities to meet people and participate in activities. Our local guide took us to two villages and we were able to talk with some of the local people. We swam and picnicked with the young family running the yurt camp at the man-made Lake Aidarkul, which was a short distance way. A late afternoon camel ride through the desert was also great fun. At night we enjoyed traditional dombra (two-stringed guitar) music by a campfire.
Then it was back to the cities and Silk Road history on our own. The city of Bukhara contains numerous mosques and madrassas, most of which were a short walk from our hotel, in the old part of the city. Our hotel was built in the 18th century and we ate breakfast each morning in a rectangular room with a high ceiling and colorful frescoes and tile work on the walls. We filmed our ‘Farewell to Asia’ video here, so take a look at it if you are interested in seeing the room.
Our time in Bukhara began with a visit to the Lab-i-Hauz pond, which is a pool with a mosque and madrassa surrounding it. This picturesque site is popular gathering place for locals. In fact, while eating dinner at a restaurant next to the pool we watched a wedding party being photographed. Bukhara is known for its three surviving domed bazaars: Taki-Sarrafon (historically containing moneychangers), Taki-Telpak Furushon (capmakers) and Taki-Zargaron (jewellers). Today they mostly house craft and souvenir stands.
We also visited the 16th century Kalân Mosque and the adjacent Kalyan Minaret. The minaret was built in 1127 and is about 150 feet (47 meters) high. It has 14 ornamental bands, all different, and was the first structure to use the glazed blue tiles that later appeared all over Uzbekistan. When Genghis Khan, amidst his pillaging of cities, saw it he was so amazed by the minaret he ordered it spared.
Our final destination in Uzbekistan was the city of Khiva. It is located about 275 miles (440 kilometers) northwest of Bukhara, so to get there we hired a driver to take us across the Kyzyl Kum Desert. The 8 1/2 hour drive took us along a desolate highway with continual hot and strong winds blowing sand across the road in front of us. Looking out the window at the blowing sand, it was easy to imagine the extreme conditions that the ancient Silk Road caravans encountered as they traveled through this area. About one-third of the road is currently under construction and torn up so it was slow going in the heat. There is plenty of traffic on the highway and we saw large trucks with license plates from Latvia, Lithuania and the Netherlands coming the other way towards us.
Located a stone’s throw from the present border with Turkmenistan, Khiva has been around since at least the 10th century. A traveler’s stop, as well as a slave market for three centuries, Khiva today boasts a walled inner town, called the Itchan Kala, which was the first site in Uzbekistan to be included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Within the walls there are more than 50 historic monuments and 250 old houses, dating from the 10th to 19th centuries, which have been carefully preserved.
Our hotel was in the renovated 19th century Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassa. The old student study areas now serve as the hotel rooms. From here we could explore the narrow streets of the Itchan Kala at a leisurely pace. The best time to see the inner city was the late afternoon as many of the west-facing buildings were vividly illuminated by the setting sun. Relaxing in this peaceful walled city was a great way to finish our time in Central Asia.
Tomorrow we will be taking an overnight train, our last in Asia, back to Tashkent and then be moving on to our first European country of Latvia in a couple of days. It seems appropriate to have spent our last few weeks in this part of the world, first in Kyrgyzstan, and now here in Uzbekistan. In doing so we not only increased our understanding of Silk Road history and but gained a greater appreciation for the present-day people through the time we spent in the rural village areas.
We also have a better feel for the geography of this part of the world, from our travels through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and the deserts of Uzbekistan – over 2,000 road and train miles in all. We are ready to continue that adventure as we travel overland through Europe for the next 2 1/2 months.