After arriving back from Blackpool, we had 12 days in Wycombe before setting off for Uzbekistan. During that time we were kept quite busy, as we both had work to do, as well as babysitting, and spending time with friends and family. We went to our folk dance club for the first time in ages, and to the cinema, where we saw Helen Mirren in The hundred-foot journey.
We also managed to walk two more stretches of the Thames Path. Despite the encouraging weather forecast, it remained grey and gloomy when we did Maidenhead to Windsor. It was much better when we did Windsor to Staines, and we enjoyed seeing the autumn leaves in the sunshine.
Mosques, madrassas and mausoleums
When we told people we were going to Uzbekistan, the response almost always took the form of a question: either ‘Where?’ or ‘Why?’ The answer to the first question was of course ‘In Central Asia’. The answer to the second was ‘Because we want to see the fabulous cities with their spectacular Islamic architecture…. It’s been on our “must visit” list for many years, ever since we heard about the silk road … Tashkent … the golden road to Samarkand (http://allpoetry.com/The-Golden-Road-to-Samarkand). It sounds so exotic, and the photos look wonderful.’
We flew overnight to Tashkent, the capital, where we met our tour guide and the seven other members of our party: three UK-based couples and an Australian lady. That afternoon we did a city tour, focusing on the old town (most of Tashkent was rebuilt following an earthquake in 1966). Our hotel was in the new town, where the buildings reflect Soviet as well as traditional Uzbek influence; we went for a brief explore after the tour.
The next day we were back at the airport for a flight to Urgench, in the west of Uzbekistan. From there we made our way back to Tashkent by road and rail. En route to Khiva (our first major stop), we detoured to visit two amazing fortresses, situated on hills where they overlook the barren desert landscape. The walls, built of adobe, have survived for approximately 2,000 years; they look almost natural rather than man-made. After the first visit, we had lunch in a yurt, one of a complex where tour parties can stay (although ours did not).
We had a full day’s sightseeing in the city of Khiva, which was slightly disappointing. The old walled town is full of mosques, minarets and madrassas, not to mention the occasional palace. They are all very similar, being built of light coloured brick with some blue ceramic decoration. Visiting one after the other, they all began to blur – even the souvenirs on sale were virtually identical. All in all, we had a pleasant time in Khiva, but found it interesting rather than exciting.
The journey from Khiva to Bukhara was some 450 km / 280 miles. The road was ‘good in parts’ and the journey took over eight hours. Our hotel was centrally located in the old town, close to a pond (artificial reservoir) with a bar which was great for people watching. It was particularly attractive at night, with fountains and coloured lights.
We had two days sightseeing in Bukhara: one on foot and the other by bus, visiting the sites a bit further out. The Great Mosque and Great Minaret were impressive. We saw a lot more mosques, madrassas and mausoleums, not to mention the Ark (citadel) and the summer palace of the last emir of Bukhara. On evening we had dinner in the courtyard of a madrassa, while watching a ‘song, dance and fashion’ show. The atmosphere was wonderful, and we really enjoyed it.
On leaving Bukhara, we travelled to Samarkand. We were in our hotel by 3 pm, and did not want to stay there until dinner at 7. So we walked the 2 km to the Registan (main square), which is surrounded on three sides by stunning madrassas, more richly decorated than others we had visited. Photos of the Registan had inspired our visit to Samarkand, so we could not wait to see it, even though we knew we would be there on our guided tour the following day. That was just as well, because when we awoke next morning the skies were grey and it was pouring with rain!
Fortunately the weather cleared after we left the Registan for the second time, and we had sun for the rest of our sightseeing in Samarkand. We saw yet more mosques and mausoleums, not to mention a 15th century observatory. We also did a day trip to Shahrisabz, where we saw another mosque and more mausoleums. The most impressive sight, however, was the ruined gateway to the palace of Timur (aka Tamurlane); the sheer size shows just how vast the palace must have been!
Perhaps the climax of our visit to Samarkand was a son et lumière performance at the Registan. Seeing the huge madrassas lit in many different colours was a magical experience, one that we’ll never forget.
We took the train from Samarkand back to Tashkent, and had a free morning there before flying home. We explored more of the new town, and enjoyed the attractive parks, with their flowers, fountains and monuments.
Did Uzbekistan live up to our high expectations? On the whole, yes; the architecture is certainly spectacular, although the buildings tend to be very similar in style. After a while, we began to feel that we really did not need to see yet another turquoise dome!
Uzbekistan is obviously changing fast. A lot of the information we gathered from our guidebook and the tour company was clearly out of date. This included a dire warning that vegetarians would struggle, so following advice we took lots of snacks, in order not to starve. We brought most of them home again. There was no problem getting veggie food, although meals tended to follow the same pattern every day, whether you ate meat or not. Dinners (and some lunches) were invariably four-course affairs; we shall need a strict weight-loss regime to recover!