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Uzbekistan… shopping on the Silk Road

Cox & Kings’ client Stella Beddoe writes about her visit to Uzbekistan where she explored the routes of the old Silk Road and the legacy of its traders and conquerors. It is not only impressive fortresses they left behind, but also traditions for local cuisine and the haggling for bargains in an Uzbek market. From the capital Tashkent through to Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, Stella discovered the range of goods sold on the Silk Road today.

Over 2,000 years ago, trading routes evolved between China and Europe, which became known as the Silk Road. Traversing pitiless deserts and awe-inspiring mountain ranges, merchants transported exotic goods from east to west. Later the exchange of new ideas, cultures and technologies would lead to the enrichment of communities across the globe. Great cities evolved along the route where the caravans would trade and refuel. Several of the most fabled were situated in Central Asia, specifically Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan. Inaccessible for much of the 20th century, after the fall of the Soviet Union it was suddenly possible to visit them again and to explore the range of goods on sale today. 

Our trip fell at the end of the season so we were a small group of three, which meant we had the undivided attention of our excellent guide, Tahir. The previous week had been cold and wet but we were treated to one last glorious burst of autumn sunshine though it dawned chilly each morning. On arrival we spent barely a day in Tashkent, learning how the city had been largely rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1966 and marvelling at the vibrant textile holdings of the Museum of Applied Art. The lengths of woven ikats (fabric in which the yarns have been tie-dyed before weaving) in rainbow colours and opulent suzani hangings (coverlets made with silk or cotton), applied with huge abstract flower forms whetted my appetite for more. The day was just long enough for me to spot and purchase a silk chapan (a loose housecoat) embroidered with palmettes in red and electric blue on a shimmering ikat ground.

Then we flew east to Khorezm province with its awesome expanses of desert where the ancient mud fortresses of Ayaz-Qala and Topraq-Qala have melted like sand castles with the passage of time.

Our destination was the beautiful city of Khiva, which offered sightseeing as well as further shopping opportunities. The city’s most impressive buildings including the Kunya Ark Palace, the shrine to Pahlavon Mohammed, and the truncated Kalta Minor minaret are dressed in some of the most glorious tiles I have ever seen.

The intricate geometrical and floral patterns are rendered in a symphony of gemstone blues, from aquamarine and turquoise to sapphire and lapis lazuli. Numerous stalls lined the route of our walk, selling costumed dolls and puppets, camel-hair shawls and a variety of headwear, from doppes (four-sided black skullcaps) embroidered in white, to huge woolly telpek hats resembling afro wigs.

At the Khiva silk workshops we witnessed a silk carpet being woven on a hand-loom.

Later we paused for refreshment at a chaykhana or teahouse, while locals played backgammon.

The following day we drove across the Karakum desert, where the shifting sands often hide the road. We headed to Bukhara, a name synonymous with some of the finest carpets from central Asia. At Bukhara Silk Carpets, a fascinating shop where exquisite carpets lined the walls, the charming Sabina explained that today many of these carpets are actually made in Turkmenistan. She also described fibres such as the soft wool, shaved from the necks of baby camels, and demonstrated how to identify real silk from artificial – it melts like plastic when burned.

The morning was cold but sunny. Refuelled by glasses of hot tea, we returned to the streets and bazaars for further retail therapy. The warm colours and fragrance of the spice stall were irresistible and we were also tempted by the decorative stamps, used to decorate flatbread or non.

Under the domes of the cavernous Tim Abdullah Khan I purchased a suzani, embroidered with pomegranates and a length of heavy silk ikat, from which I later made an evening skirt.

Our final destination was Samarkand, the city most closely associated with the legendary warrior, Timur or Tamerlane. We gasped at the wonders of Registan Square and visited the workshops of craftsmen who help to keep the gleaming, tiled facades of the madrassas (Islamic schools) in good repair. In a neighbouring workshop we were serenaded on a variety of traditional stringed instruments by the multi-talented musician, Mr Babur.

CDs of him playing the dutar, the gijak and the chang make popular souvenirs and continue to evoke Central Asia long after one has left. We also visited a large covered market selling a huge range of nuts and pulses, fruit, vegetables and sweets. No wonder gold-capped teeth are much in evidence!

See more about Uzbekistan: Heart of Central Asia group tour.