Sitting solid in the heart of Central Asia's Great Steppe, locked in by a number of other 'Stans, Uzbekistan is a country that doesn't usually get a lot of attention from those seeking adventure and unique destinations. In 2005, for instance, less than a quarter of a million travellers showed up on the country's doorstep and while those figures continue to rise, the small number of people ending up with an Uzbek stamp in their passports belies the impressive travel opportunities this country has to offer. With many historic and cultural representations of the country's once integral point along the Silk Road, not to mention its many nods to ancient Islam and seven decades of Soviet control, Uzbekistan helps travellers feel as though they've taken a step back in time. The capital of Tashkent, too, while offering all modern amenities, opens a window to the past with highlight attractions such as the Telyashayakh Mosque, home of the Uthman Qur'an, considered the world's oldest; the Palace of the once-banished-from-Russia Prince Romanov; the Amir Timur museum; and, the Fine Arts Museum, which houses modern treasures as well as some honouring the country's earlier Buddhist and Zoroastrian traditions. Outside of the capital, some of the country's most prized visitor draws are its four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, each of which offers up special treats for those who come to drink them in: Khiva's Itchan Kala, it's walled inner city that dates back to the tenth century; the 5,000-year old city of Bukhara, with its number of ancient mosques and scholarly institutions; Skakhrisabz, the birthplace of conqueror Timur and home to a number of monuments dating back to his time; and, Samarkand, which, like Bukhara, is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. A trip to Uzbekistan is one that is bound to stay with you for a lifetime, for all the right reasons. ~ Samantha McDonald-Amara
Uzbekistan is a country rich with history. In ancient times, the territory where present day Uzbekistan lies included the main artery between east and west, between Europe and Asia, also known as the Silk Road. The land that stretches for thousands of kilometers from the Caspian Sea in the west to the TianShian Mountains in the east is some of the most inhospitable and driest on earth. Travelling across this land is not a comfortable, luxurious experience, even in the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle. Naturally, the ancient travelers had to have places along the way to rest.
Some years ago, another lifetime in fact, my Dad lent me a book, The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk. It’s about that little bit of history when the Russian and British empires found themselves staring at each other across the vast and unknown steppe that separated their two frontiers. To 19th century minds what lay between - a vast, complicated tapestry of khanates, giant sandstone fortresses and intractable deserts - may as well have been the surface of another planet. The history of the Empire isn’t really what this is about; however, it’s important to stress the vividness of the images the book planted in my mind. There’s a tangible romance in the unknown and for some time my mind was full of pictures of strange and mysterious fortresses, endless deserts and ancient minarets towering out of the limitless expanse of the Central Asian Steppe. Given this, you can imagine my state of mind as, some years later, I lay on my bunk as the midnight train pulled its slow way out of Almaty and into the vast Kazakh wilderness. Managing expectations in such a climate can be tough.