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Uzbekistan, Silk Road Splendor and Beyond

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Faces of Uzbekistan. Photo Scott Stone.

By Scott Stone

From an early age I was fascinated by the Silk Road.

It was Sunday night and that meant “Gracious Evening.” Mom would prepare a special dinner, and us kids would dress nicely and behave with best manners. But before mom served the food, she would lead a discussion on some far-off destination. That evening it was the Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan.  The next day my thirteen-year-old self-opened the Atlas and looked at the city’s mom spoke of.

Samarkand – Bukhara – Khiva

The look of their names, the sound, so much more exotic than the Midland – Flint – Bay City of my native Michigan.

And so it was, taking me more than a half century to make it to the land that so long ago captured my imagination. Believe me, it was not from lack of want, but because under the 27 years of oppressive government of Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, it made traveling there highly questionable.   When he passed away in 2017, Shaukat Mirziyoyev became president, and one of his first orders of business was to “open Uzbekistan to foreign tourists.” And has he done that. In 1995 – 92,000 foreign tourists came to the country, 2018 – five million, and 2023 they are predicting seven million foreign tourists. Uzbekistan, this secular Central Asian country, a former Soviet Republic, the size of California with a population 33 million, is on the verge of being a “hot travel destination.”

Strung out on the edge of the Kyzyl-Kum Desert, the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva sat at the crossroads of the 4,000-mile Silk Road (130 BC – 1453), was an exchange of goods and cultures between China and the West.  These ancient cities have witnessed power and glory as well as brutal attacks and great suffering.

What remains today of these UNESCO World Heritage cities is a rich preserved history and a mind-boggling treasure trove of Islamic architectural riches. I was especially beguiled by the exquisite tile and mosaic work done in a wide variety of shades of blue used in their mosques, madrassas (Muslim school) and mausoleums. From Cobalt to Sky it was “Rhapsody in Blue.”   I strongly recommend visiting all three cities, as each possesses its own unique history, artistic treasures, and has its distinct “personality” from the other.


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A sea of blue mosaics. Photo Scott Stone.


Khiva (pronounced Hiva) located in the far west of the country my decision to fly was easy, just an hour flight from Tashkent, versus a 14-hour train ride. From a distance, Khiva’s “Ichon Qala,” the walled city with its 33-foot fortress walls stood before me. A desert outpost for over 2,500 years, I was overtaken with a sense of awe.  As I entered the main gate, I immediately felt the crush of souvenir sellers including a “carnival barking” man with a camel and camera. I nimbly crossed to a side street and felt relief in the quiet of a lovely courtyard, and then made my way to a couple must see sites. The Kalta Minor Minaret, stubby in stature but sublime in its turquoise tile work, and Tash-Khovli Palace with its brilliant deep blue ornate mosaics, wood carved columns, and soaring ceiling. Seeking to get off on my own I accessed the ramp by the north gate and walked on the ramparts above the walled city. A fascinating perspective.


Khiva,the West Gate, the main entrance to “Ichan Kala,” the medieval walled city, featuring the sublime Kalta Minor Minaret. Photo Khiva Tourist Office.


Khiva is at its best as the day begins to fade. As dusk arrives and the “hawkers” disappear it becomes magical. I walked among the maze of thread-like alleyways in their hushed silence, stood alone at Kukha Ark, the primary residence for the Khan, and through a small entrance made my way to its Watchtower taking in the burning sunset. I could envision the invading Turkmen on horseback charging across the desert. Khiva is a one-of-a-kind place, but one day is sufficient, if you arrive early and stay the night. I would allot three days each to the other two Silk Road cities.

My train to Bukhara left Khiva at 8am, the eight-hour train ride crossed a dry desolate foreboding terrain. Certainly not pretty, but fascinating as it added greater understanding of the hardships these caravans traveling the Silk Road went through. I found the train service excellent wherever I traveled.


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Bukhara, the Lybai-Hauz. For nearly 700 years this urban oasis has been the gathering spot for tea, music and conversation. Photo Scott Stone.


I fell under the spell of Bukhara immediately. On my first day, a couple minutes’ walk from my hotel I came upon the Lyabi-Hauz, a plaza built around a pool shaded by mulberry trees with informal tables as locals and tourists enjoyed taking tea in the morning sun. It has been here since 1620 and set the tone for exploring this captivating city with its 140 “historic buildings.” Bukhara has a justified reputation as the city of artists and craftsmen, as silversmiths, weavers, woodworkers, seemed on display everywhere. One artist I was especially drawn to was Ulugbek Mukhamedov.  For the past 41 years he has painted in front of the Bolo-Hauz Mosque, specializing in sumptuous watercolors of Bukhara. I was so taken with his work that I bought five postcard sized works of his.

Make sure to visit the Ark the large fortress with its commanding view, and most of all the Kalon Mosque with its entrancing Tiffany Blue dome, and the accompanying Kalon Minaret. “Kalon” (translated is great), and indeed as this mosque the second largest in Central Asia and serves as the city’s “Friday Mosque,” which means it is a place for a common prayer of devout Muslims at noon on Friday. It accommodates an open courtyard for up to 12,000 worshipers. As for the minaret, when Genghis Khan destroyed Bukhara in 1220, he was so taken by its beauty he ordered not to touch it.


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Lulu Kebab. The grilled spicy ground lamb kebab was my go-to dish while traveling Uzbekistan. Fantastic with a cold beer. Photo Scott Stone.


It was a middle-aged businessman from Bukhara named Ali that introduced me to Lulu Kabab. The name sounds like an exotic dancer, but it is an Uzbek food. “I take you place locals eat and must try Lulu Kaba” he emphasized as he walked me to the restaurant Chhayxana. The dish of ground lamb kebabs with cumin, and coriander grilled on long skewers with onion and washed down with a cold Sarbast, “mazali!” Ali’s involvement was one of many interactions I had with the ever so warm wanting to help people of Uzbekistan. In addition to Lulu Kabab make sure you try Plov, which is considered the National Dish. It consists of rice pilaf, chunks of lamb, carrots, raisins and apricots. Uzbekistan cuisine is very meat-centric, and vegetarians will find it challenging.


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Registan. Photo Scott Stone.


Samarkand (two hours via train from Bukhara), is the largest city on the Silk Road and the second largest in Uzbekistan, has some big-time jaw-dropping sites. The biggest being the Registan, the centerpiece of the city and probably the single most awesome site in Central Asia. Three large resplendently tiled madrassas (in some ways even more breathtaking inside), sit on a large square and are especially luminous in the evening as families from across the country gather enthralled in its mesmerizing beauty. The Shah-i-Zida is probably the most emotionally impactful site, it is the “avenue of the mausoleums” some twenty tombs, they encompass a staggering array of dazzling tile and mosaic artistry. Make sure to visit Ger-e-Amir, the mausoleum of Amir Timur (1336-1405). A conquering warrior, patron of the arts, he is the country’s national hero. The interior chamber in lapis and gold leaf is extraordinary.

In Samarkand I stayed at the Rabat Boutique Hotel, an exceptional property steeped in history and highly atmospheric. Strongly recommend it. (And like all things in Uzbekistan that are travel-touristed related, inexpensive.)


Sentob. Photo Scott Stone.


The three Silk Road cities are the star attraction in visiting Uzbekistan. However, I found it important to get off the road, to have more variety to my Uzbekistan travel. I was yearning for nature and hiking, I headed north to the Nuratau Mountains, to the town of Nurata. (Via four hours of train/taxi travel). It was here I met with Rusla, the owner of Nurata Tours who customized a 2 day/1-night excursion staying with a family in the hamlet of Sentob, reachable only by crossing a mountain pass with a guide.

Next morning the arranged taxi after about a two-hour drive dropped me off at the side of a dirt road, the driver saying, “guide Sentob come.” I looked around seeing only a small boy kicking stones. He looked up, approaching me slowly but with assurance said, “me guide.” He was so slight, looked about eight though told me he was twelve. His name was Akober and spoke enough English that we talked of soccer and his interest in school. He walked briskly, I am yelling out “echki” (the Uzbek word for goat) and he laughed and did slow down. After about an hour of walking straight uphill we reached the crest and below in the valley backed up by craggy green mountains was Sentob, the setting stunning and tranquil.


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My hosts Camille and Durdona, I stayed at their home in the mountain village of Sentob.


It was here in a long low white brick house surrounded by flowers that I would stay for the night. My host was Camille, and surprise, he was Akober’s father. He was a distinguished looking man of about fifty, wore a traditional dark blue chapan, a loose-fitting knee-length cotton coat. He had a larger-than-life personality, so much so that I kept thinking of him as the Uzbek version of “Zorba the Greek.” Each dinner sitting on the floor eating Uzbek style, we were served a mountainous array of Uzbek specialties, including Plov prepared by his wife Durdona. He would get up and play the dutor and sing and dance and pass the Uzbek Vodka around between me and a young French couple that was staying as well.  Next day was wonderful as I wandered the glorious countryside, often accompanied by goats and school children, who took me home to their parents to have home brewed green tea and practice their English with me.


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Young women at Tashkent subway. Photo Scott Stone.


Leaving the bucolic mountain splendor, I made my way to Tashkent, Central Asia’s largest city for my final days.  Tashkent has two faces, and I found both appealing. You have the city on the move, new glass buildings, international restaurants, cool cafes, a happening music and art scene. But also, a colorful “old town” with narrow lanes, and the chaotic colorful Chorsu Bazaar, and some prime examples of the Soviet Brutalist architecture. The city is green with wide avenues and subways that are literally works of art.

Hours before my flight I made my way up to the 17th floor bar of the Uzbekistan Hotel, a classic old Soviet structure. Looking down on Timur Square, I raised my glass and made a double toast (“who-sand-chi-lik”), for fulfilling my long ago travel dream of the Silk Road, and to the big-hearted people of Uzbekistan, to opening your arms wide and continue to welcome foreign tourists to your fascinating alluring country.


Scott Headshot
Scott Headshot

Scott Stone is the author of Insatiable: A Passion-For-Life Memoir Backpacking Around the World, and founder of the website Ethnicepicurenyc.com. In a previous life before being totally consumed by travel and writing, where he especially is drawn to report on remote  destinations.  Stone split his business career of thirty years between the cruise industry and magazine publishing. Working in executive management positions at the Cunard Line (VP Sales) and in publishing with such titles as Town & CountryCivilizationHemispheres and Doubledown Media. (Trader Monthly/Dealmaker/Private Air). Raised in the Midwest, he has resided in New York City for the past twenty-six years. 

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