Seeking Safe Exotica? Uzbekistan Could Be The Answer

by Robert Selwitz
Seeking Safe Exotica? Uzbekistan Could Be The Answer

Samarkand's signature Registan Square. Photo: Barbara Selwitz


Looking for a “bucket list” country that’s intriguing, safe and inexpensive? Look no further than Uzbekistan.

Bordering on Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, Uzbekistan is home to the legendary Silk Road cities, Samarkand and Bukhara, which for centuries were the heart of the trade route from China to the Mediterranean.

The country also boasts warm and friendly people who are glad you decided to visit. And there are continual opportunities to snap envy-raising pictures.

Uzbekistan does have a few intriguing quirks. These include the virtual absence of credit cards, with the exception of certain upscale hotels, and no bills worth much more than a dollar, making a perpetually stuffed wallet becomes a necessity.  

And even though visa and documentation requirements are time-consuming, Uzbekistan is definitely worth the challenge.

Tashkent is where all international flights first land, so it’s likely that’s where your travelers will start. Though it has a fascinating old town and extensive mosque complex, Tashkent today is primarily a sprawling broad-avenue-laced metropolis. Travelers will want to experience its extensive subway, with elegantly designed stations similar to those in Moscow, built by Russia after the devastating 1966 earthquake.

To reach Samarkand take the six-year-old, Spanish-built, Afrosiyob train. During the roughly two-hour journey, speeds can reach 160 mph.

Extraordinary tile-covered madrassas, mosques and mausoleums are Uzbekistan’s prime tourism draw. And three former madrassas surrounding Samarkand’s Registan Square are as good as it gets.

While their original mission, to instruct Muslim students, was ended under Soviet anti-religion regulations, the buildings themselves are as elegant as they were when they debuted between the 15th and 17th centuries. Today, they share a common fate of many other Muslim edifices: They are sites for tourist merchandise shops.

Other major Samarkand must-sees include the massive tomb of Timur, the great 14th century conqueror; the magnificently decorated Shaki-Zinda Necropolis; and the observatory of Ulugbec, Timur’s grandson and a great 15th century astronomer. 

Back on the Afrosyiob, it's a 90-minute ride to Bukhara, where the old town blends historic gems, a great fort and the elegant Lyabi Khauz complex. Here, good food and great people-watching thrive, as in centuries past. Major Bukhara sights include the Ark Fortress, former home of the city’s rulers, and Char Minor, a former madrassa with four distinct minarets.  

To the west lies Khiva, home to a walled old city dotted with gorgeously tiled soaring minarets. Jam-packed with former madrassas and mosques, you’ll definitely be intrigued by the magnificently-tiled Islam Khoja minaret.

You’ll want to either fly here, or hire a car and driver to cover the 277-mile, 7.5-hour trip should air schedules not match yours. Unfortunately, there currently is no comfortable train option.

If you have more time, explore the extraordinary Savitsky Museum in Nukus, a major repository of 1930s-era Russian Avant Garde paintings. Or venture to Termez, site of fascinating two-millennium-old Buddhist ruins. From here, proselytizers spread their faith’s message throughout Asia.

Recommendations:

  • In Tashkent: The Lotte City Palace Tashkent—Great location and service in a friendly, modern property. 
  • Restaurant: Soy. Very popular with locals, your concierge will know how to get there.
  • In Bukhara: The Amulet—An elegant, beautifully run hotel in a renovated 19th-century madrassa, close to major sights.
  • Tour Operator: Advantour—www.advantour.com. Contact: Shavkat Khodjaev, shkhodjaev@advantour.com. A reliable and dependable information source.
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