Uzbekistan hopes to be the next big holiday destination for Brits, with the old Soviet state introducing visa-free travel … and here are the attractions on offer
- Famous cosmonauts are immortalised in portrait at a Tashkent Metro station
- Timur the Lame is the unlikely name of a noted military leader of Samarkland
- Say ‘yes’ to a non – a traditional fluffy flatbread for sale in the Chorsu Bazaar
It’s official – Uzbekistan has relaxed visa restrictions to British tourists and the destination is tipped to be the next big thing.
From this month, British passport holders will be able to enter the former Soviet state for visits of up to 30 days without a visa – an initiative first mooted three years ago.
The former stop on the Great Silk Road spins quite a yarn with a narrative tying in trade, the faiths of Islam and Zoroastrianism, war-mongering and astronomy. Here’s all you need to know about three of the best areas to visit – Tashkent, Samarkland and Bukhara.
Tashkent’s TV Tower Aerial broadcasts to all that the city is as progressive as it is historical
In the leafy capital, Tashkent, the Metro is more than a method of transport, it’s an encyclopaedic summary of Uzbek history.
Why? Because each station in the underground system, opened in 1977, is elaborately decorated to represent a different part of the country, and a ban on taking photos of the network (because of the military sensitivity of its secondary use as a nuclear bomb shelter) has just been lifted, so you can get snap happy.
Some of the most impressive stations are royal blue-hued Kosmonavtlar, featuring portraits dedicated to famous cosmonauts; Pakhtakor, thanks to its technicolor tiling; and Alisher Navoi, with its intricate multi-domed ceiling.
Royal blue-hued Kosmonavtlar Metro station, Tashkent, immortalises famous cosmonauts
Traditional `non´ bread fresh from the oven at the Chorsu bazaar
Back at street level, the bustling Chorsu Bazaar in the centre of the city is one of many locations to grab a large loaf of ‘non’. The fluffy flatbread accompanies every meal in Uzbekistan, but at the market, it comes fresh from the scalding tandoor ovens in which it’s baked.
Tashkent has myriad mosques and madrasahs (religious schools), too – notably the Khast Imam complex, less than 10 minutes in a taxi from Chorsu – but, they pale in comparison to what you can find beyond the urban sprawl, so a day or two is all you need in the capital.
The high-speed train to Samarkland – the second-largest Uzbek city – sits at Tashkent
The geometric construction of Samarkland – two hours by high-speed train from Tashkent
Inside one of three madrasahs at the Registan in Samarkland, built between 1417 and 1660, which is adorned with typical examples of both Islamic and Zoroastrian iconography
A two-hour high-speed train journey from Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s second largest city was once a booming trading stop on the Great Silk Road.
First stop for any traveller should be the magnificent Registan, comprising three madrasahs, in the centre of the old town.
Completed in different eras between 1417 and 1660, the three buildings have been restored inside and out. The facades show symbols of both Islam and Zoroastrianism (an ancient pre-Islamic religion which is still practised by some Uzbeks today), while inside, the high-domed ceilings gleam with intricate gold leaf and bronze tiles.
Even more impressive is the nearby Shah-I Zinda necropolis – a series of mausoleums decorated with elaborate mosaics and glazed ‘majolica’ tiles – and the Gur-Emir, the mausoleum of Amir Timur.
Also known as Tamerlane, the rather inauspicious Timur the Lame, this 14th century military leader features prominently in Uzbekistan’s history books and much spoken about in Samarkand.
Star-gazing: Uzbek astronomer Ulugh Beg is among those honoured at the Afrosiab Museum, Samarkand (above). Visitors can explore the observatory he built here 600 years ago
Another respected figure is astronomer and mathematician Ulugh Beg. At the Afrasiab Museum, a 10-minute drive from Registan, you can dip into star-gazing history and explore the remains of the observatory Beg built nearly 600 years ago.
Architecture and science aside, they say Samarkand is the best place to sample ‘plov’, the national dish of Uzbekistan. Invented in the 10th century to fuel the army, this hearty blend of lamb, vegetables, spices and rice is usually made outside in big, deep pans.
Poi Kalan mosque complex in Bukhara. The town is famed for its Kalyan Minaret, ‘a tower so breathtaking even Genghis Khan couldn’t bring himself to destroy it’ in the 13th century
A four-hour drive west of Samarkand, Bukhara is most famous for the Kalyan Minaret, a tower so breathtaking even Genghis Khan couldn’t bring himself to destroy it when he came marauding in the 13th century.
The sand-coloured 47 metre-high structure is referred to as a ‘beautiful lady without make-up’ (contrasting with the colourful tiled mosques seen all over the country) and is part of the Poi Kalan mosque complex.
The other major architectural draw of the region is the Ark of Bukhara, a huge fortress that was home to the ruling emirs from the 5th century until 1920.
The interiors of Sitorai Mokhi-Khosa, the summer palace near Bukhara completed in 1918, showcase architecture fit for a king, lavish ceremonial gowns and typical ‘suzani’ embroidery
Ornate tiling within the mosque in Bukhara is as intricate as Uzbekistan’s centuries-long history
But it’s outside the town that two of the most interesting sites are found.
First, Sitorai Mokhi-Khosa, the emir’s summer palace, completed in 1918, features décor fit for a king, lavish ceremonial gowns and ‘suzani’ embroidery.
At the next stop, the Gijduvan Crafts centre, near the town of Gijduvan, you can try your hand at the ancient needlework technique yourself by learning directly from the local women in what forms something of an Uzbek knitting circle.
Visitors can submit their applications online.
Explore offers a 13-day tour of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for £2,575 pp including flights.
Uzbekistan Airways flies twice a week direct from London Heathrow to Tashkent, from £432 return.
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