Uzbekistan: The Treasure Chambers of Uzbekistan

Join photographer Sebastiaan Bedaux as he explores Uzbekistan and finds, much to his surprise, that it belies all his preconceived notions of Central Asia and presents a collection of wonders far beyond what he ever imagined. From Silk Road wonders to modern architectural gems, travel to Uzbekistan is a treasure trove just waiting to be explored.

Along the old Silk Road, modern travelers share the same views that ancient traders once beheld – the towering minarets of the Registan complex tower above Samarqand’s central square as they have since the early 1400s, the 213 wooden pillars of Khiva’s Juma Mosque still support its 18th-century prayer hall, and the bustling souvenir trade beneath Bukhara’s covered trading domes harkens back to the age of unbridled commerce that built Central Asia into a nexus of world power. The feeling of traveling back in time, basking in the glories of the peak of an earlier epoch, and wandering through backstreets that in just the right light and with just the right imagination evoke scenes straight from centuries in the past.

Though Tashkent may not be the reason Sebastiaan made the trip to Uzbekistan, the capital city is certainly a delightful surprise in itself. They may not catch headlines like the Registan, but Tashkent’s restored Silk Road architecture would be a standout attraction in most countries. Deep underground, the ornate artistry of the Tashkent Metro system’s unique and magnificent works of art are finally getting the attention they deserve – after decades off-limits to photographers, in 2018 the government gave permission for photography and videography, and images have quickly circulated online and in print of the impressive subterranean ornamentation to be found. It’s little surprise, then, that Sebastiaan found his Uzbekistan Airways flights nearly booked up with excited visitors.

The government of Uzbekistan is aware of how much they have to offer visitors, of course, and in recent years they’ve made it much easier for tourists to come. Travelers from more than 50 countries no longer need a visa to visit Uzbekistan for stays of up to thirty days. For many more, all that’s required is an easy online e-visa application. In-country, a booming growth of hotels and guesthouses is giving tourists a wealth of new options while growing transportation infrastructure is making it continually easier to get around. Expanded domestic flight networks, integration of online booking for the Uzbek Railways network, and an ongoing extension of the country’s high-speed rail system all come together to mean it has never been easier to travel in Uzbekistan.

As local operators themselves testify, traveling in Uzbekistan has plenty to offer tourists. From the restored Silk Road madrassas and mausoleums of Samarkand and Khiva to the relic bazaars of Bukhara or the Brutalist masterpieces and bedecked metro system of Tashkent – it’s a country with endless treasures. Video testimonials with two local tour operators conclude the article by inviting visitors to join them, and USAID, to Discover Uzbekistan.

Things to see & do in uzbekistan

Nowhere in the world brings to life Silk Road caravan routes like Uzbekistan – the golden light of sunrise over 900 year old minarets, the air of a chaikana ripe with spices and sizzling meat, and the cries of hawkers in restored covered bazaars as they advertise their wares (though these days they tend far more towards souvenirs than Silk). Travel in Uzbekistan engages all the senses – including a sense of wonder popularly embodied by the closing lines of Flecker’s Hassan.

“We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known,
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.”

– Hassan: The Golden Journey to Samarkand, James Elroy Flecker

Silk Road Cities

Seemingly a step back in time, particularly in the early morning hours when the sound of a push cart on cobblestone streets cuts the air or the dust of an early-rising family sweeping the streets lights up in the angled sunlight, a walk through the old towns of Uzbekistan evokes empires risen and fallen.

Samarkand, once the capital of Timurlane’s empire, still largely defines the very idea of a Silk Road city for visitors to Uzbekistan. The Registan Complex, three massive medressah buildings surrounding a central square, dominates the historic center of the city, though the nearby Gur-i Amir tomb of Tamerlane and Shah-i Zinda mausoleum complex are equally ornate. By contrast the ruins of the Bibi-Khonum Mosque, while no less beautiful, are evocative of the fallen empire of the once-great Timurids.

Buhkara, in comparison to the few major restored buildings of Samarkand’s center, is a living city dotted with ancient buildings. From the covered merchant domes that define the city’s layout to the historic Jewish quarter where traces of the once-thriving religious group can still be spotted, the old and new mingle in Bukhara as locals and visitors alike incorporate them all into daily life.

Khiva, the third great Silk Road city of Uzbekistan, is more of an open-air museum. Surrounded still by the ten-meter walls of the Ichan Qala fortress, the base of which is believed to date to at least the 10th century, the inner city is a maze of restored madressahs and mosques interspersed among modern family homes and converted caravansaray hotels.

Entrance to Poi Kalan Historic Complex in Bukhara.
© Ernest Kurtveliev

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Colorful Craftwork

Ceramic dishes for sell at a souvenir stall in Samarqand.
© Stephen Lioy

Travel in Uzbekistan exposes visitors to an endless array of colors, patterns, and crafts. Brightly-tiled mosque and medressah walls compete for attention with intricately-embroidered syuzani and hand-painted ceramic dishes. Uzbekistan’s artisans are justifiably famous for their craftwork, often associated with the Timurid period and early-1400s religious buildings that represent much of the country’s architectural heritage in Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva.

Architectural forms of Uzbek craftsmanship include decorative elements like delicate ganch (stucco) carved in intricate patterns – used widely in historic state structures but often present as well in private dwellings and everyday buildings – and glazed polychromatic ceramic tiles used for ornamentation of walls and ceilings.  Most famously used on mosques and medrassahs of the Timurid period, these designs are now popularly incorporated into many tourism businesses such as hotels and restaurants as well.

Decorative ceramics are popular for practical use and souvenirs alike, with a wide range of dishes and statuettes widely available. Glazing colors can often be used to identify the point of origin of ceramics, with those from the Ferghana Valley and Khorezm regions favoring a blue/green/white color scheme while items from cities such as Tashkent, Samarqand, and Bukhara tends towards red/green/yellow patterns.

Embroidered fabrics are popular items of clothing and decoration among locals and tourists in Uzbekistan, with suzani decorative textile hangings (typically decorated by patterns specific to each region of the country) the most commonly-found in the markets of Uzbekistan’s tourist destinations.

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Fun for Foodies​

As befits a country at the heart of historic trade routes, the cuisine of Uzbekistan shows influences from across Asia and the Middle East in spices and ingredients, though the communal tables on tapchan raised seating platforms is essentially Central Asian. Food is an important element of social cohesion in the country and culture – locals gather at family homes and chiakana teahouses to break fresh non bread, share massive portions of grilled shashlyk meat or palov, and cut up the country’s famously-sweet melons for dessert. In fact, in 2016 UNESCO even added Uzbekistan’s ‘palov culture and tradition‘ to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ in recognition of  the important role it plays in culture and community. For first time visitors, a few most-common iconic dishes are definitely worth seeking out.

Palov – Widely seen as the national dish of Uzbekistan, palov (also plov or osh) is a rice dish simmered in spices and meat broth in a large kazan pot. The exact ingredients of the dish vary widely across the country, so it’s well worth trying at least once in each new city.

Shashlik – Grilled meat in Uzbekistan comes in many varieties – beef and mutton are the most popular, but chicken and even horse can be found as well. Stuff it all onto a skewer, grill it on an open flame, and enjoy it with a side of vinegar and raw onions.

Norin – Handmade pasta cooked in horse-meat broth and served with a topping of shredded horse meat. Though less common in cafes and restaurants, norin is popular in at-home gatherings of friends and family.

Chuchvara – Small dumplings filled with meat and/or vegetables served steamed, fried, or in a savory soup; often topped with suzma, a yogurt-based curd also popular on salads.

Samsa – Uzbekistan’s favourite street food, layered dough stuffed with meat (typically mutton) and/or vegetables are stuck to the side of a tandoor oven and baked over a wood fire.

For travellers, all this means that their taste buds will be spoiled for choice in Uzbekistan. Fresh seasonal salads that taste like they’ve been picked right from the fields, savory meat dishes grilled to perfection, dumplings of many forms (Soup? Got em. Fried? Got that too!) stuffed with all sorts of goodies, and the freshest and most flavourful fruit that could be hoped for (also a treat when dried and sold in local bazaars). Combined with the country’s colourful ceramics and intricate embroidery (widely adopted to make restaurants even more atmospheric), every meal can be a delight for foodies and photographers alike.

Uzbek cuisine is a vibrant mixture of flavors and colors.
© Ernest Kurtveliev

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About the Author: Stephen Lioy is a Tourism Development Consultant for USAID’s Competitiveness, Trade and Jobs activity.

To find more information and inspiration for traveling in Uzbekistan, visit Uzbekistan.Travel or follow Uzbekistan Travel on Facebook and Instagram.

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