Silk Road and Central Asia countries were on my radar since my early twenties. So, when I learned about Uzbekistan abolishing tourist visas, I knew this is the time! The places to visit were Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand. I was very keen to add some trekking too. It was less popular idea and I must say I struggle a bit to find any information. To be honest we left Ireland with a very vague idea where to walk, hoping to find more information in Uzbekistan.
This trip was going to be bit different than our previous travels. The plan was to fly to Moscow and then to travel by train to Uzbekistan. Train trip from Moscow to Urgench takes three full days. Yes, three days to leave Europe, enter Asia, roll through Kazakhstan, west of Uzbekistan and to reach our destination. Three days to feel the vastness and endlessness of this part of the world. Three days of living on a train, sleeping, reading, talking to our travel companions, sharing food, alcohol and experiencing the local hospitality.
The second part of the trip, between Volgograd and Urgench was a true immersion into Central Asian life. We were the only tourist on the whole, very long train. I was in a party compartment, while John ended up in more family orientated setting. Our travel companions invited us home, and made sure we were neither hungry, nor thirsty….. The train is full of traders selling hot food (samosas, I lost count how many we bought), jewelry, fur coats, alcohol, smoked fish (yes!). Exchanging money was also possible. Our train journey finished at Urgench, where we took taxi to our next destination.*
It was already dark, when we arrived in Khiva. Finding our accommodation was not easy. At night the old town is sparsely lit and finding our hotel was a bit of a challenge. After asking few times for directions, we were walked to our destination by an eight year old local, keen to help. Nice welcome.
Khiva is full of beautiful old buildings. The historic part was very well preserved and it retained much of an old charm. Inner walled city is called Ichon-Qala. The main building is Kuhna Ark, the former Khiva’s rulers fortress and residence.
Another worth visiting place is nearby Juma Mosque. It has 218 wooden columns supporting its roof. Few of them come from the 10th century, the rest dates from 18th century. Believe me, walking between all the columns is an special experience. And this is not all, there are numerous medressas, residencies and other places of interest. Old Khiva is a great place just to walk, awe and take it all in.
Beside old buildings are shops selling souvenirs and restaurants catering for tourists. During our train trip we learned, that soups, potatoes and cabbage are Russian fare, having nothing to do with traditional Uzbek food. The first restaurant we ate in, was serving pumpkin soup, french fries etc. Bit disappointing, although the food was very tasty. The following day, we wanted to eat something truly local. In our quest we had to take marshrutka and go to the new town. There we found eatery with menu only in Uzbek and Russian, with no soup, french fries etc on it. We had the nicest possible lagman** with fresh tomato and cucumber salad and green tea***. Feast.
The indisputable highlight of our visit to Khiva were the old town walls. It is believed their foundations were laid in the 10th century. The walls were rebuild in the 17th century and they are 10 metres high. Perfect spot for taking photos of the old town in the evening, or for a jog early mornings.
Our next stop was Bukhara. We took a taxi to go there. The landscape between the two cities is flat and arid. The trip would be long and uneventful, if not an unexpected stop. Our taxi was overtaken by another car and made to pull over. That was followed by a lengthy discussion between our driver and the men from the another car. Judging from the body language our driver was in troubles. We worried for a moment, we may be left without a driver on a side of the road! Luckily all ended well and few hours later we arrived in Bukhara. After checking in we had a stroll through the old town. Another marvelous place. More medressas to admire.
The following day we hired guide to show us around. It was a great idea, as I started to suffer from so called ‘medressa overload’. Our local guide made fabulous job at breathing life into all this marvelous old buildings. I specially loved her story about Kalon Minaret, 47m tall with 14 ornamental bands. When Chinggis Khan stood at the front of the minaret, wind blew his hat off and he had to bend in order to pick it up. This small bow of the powerful man towards the tower spared it from plundering.
We spent few hours with our guide walking from site to site. In Bukhara there is plethora of old buildings. One of my favourite was Abdul Aziz Khan Medressa dated from 16th century.
We spent as well few hours in the Ark, a royal town-within-a-town. It was occupied from the 5th century to 1920. It hosts few interesting museums inside royal quarters. Beside them are Juma Mosque, Reception and Coronation Court. All well worth seeing.
During our guided sightseeing we found time to sat for cappuccinos and cakes at the so pleasant Lyabi-Hauz plaza. We were taken to carpet shop, suzani workshop and few other traditional artisan places.
Our next experience was a week long trek in Nuratau Mountains more details here.
* There is new train station in Khiva, but it was easier to take a taxi from Urgench.
**Lagman is a traditional dish served in Uzbekistan based on noodles, meat, bit of broth, veg etc, fried egg might be added. Fulfilling, very tasty, very local.
***Green tea is served in jugs, left to brew. Before tea is ready, cup must be filled with the tea and then emptied back to the jug. Repeat 3 times. Enjoy.
Accommodation in both towns was booked through booking.com. In Khiva we stayed in B&B Zafarbek Ichan-kala Toshpolatov 28 str firstname.lastname@example.org Generally accommodation in Uzbekistan is easy to find, easy to book, and it is still a great value!
For travel between towns we were using taxis. There is option to use shared taxi, or be on your own. In both cases the fare is the same, you just pay your share. Always agree on price before, but remember the price is PER PERSON, so ie if you agree on 5000 som and there are two of you, the fare comes to 10000 som.
The best connections for flights were from Moscow, Riga and Istanbul. We flew Cork, Heathrow, Moscow then took train to Urgench. On the way back we flew from Samarkand to Moscow, then Heathrow and Cork. Flights with British Airways and Uzbekistan Airways. Important: if traveling through Moscow check your visa requirements!
Language to use: Russian. English is spoken only in touristy spots.
Recommended read: guide book ”Central Asia” by Lonely Planet, ”A carpet Ride to Khiva” by Christopher Alexander, ”Beyond the Oxus” by Monica Whitlock, ”Murder in Samarkand” by Craig Murray.