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Joe Meredith

Why you should visit Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan: a vibrant stop on the Silk Route, a crossroads between east and west, and the metropole of a medieval empire. This Central Asian country – less visited than neighbouring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – offers a bounty of cultural riches to the curious visitor.

You may not have considered travelling to Uzbekistan before, so this is our opportunity to sing its praises. Here is why you should visit Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan’s history

Uzbekistan is home to the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia: Samarkand and Bukhara, founded between the eighth and sixth centuries BCE. Ancient kingdoms and empires were forged in this arid land, and the Silk Road cemented it as a centre of trade.

The country is famously the birthplace of Timur (also called Tamerlane), a national hero to many Uzbeks. This 14th-century conqueror established the Timurid Empire, which spanned much of Central Asia and nearby territories. There are myriad statues of Timur in Uzbekistan; you can see him atop a horse in Tashkent, in a regal repose in Samarkand, and stood watchfully in Shahrisabz.

Many of the best things to do in Uzbekistan centre around exploring the country’s rich history. High on the list of historic destinations include the medieval necropolis of Shah-i-Zinda; the Registan square in Samarkand; and Khiva’s UNESCO-listed inner fortress, Itchan Kala.

Popular history museums in Uzbekistan include the Amir Timur Museum, dedicated to the Turco-Mongol warlord; the Museum in Memory of the Victims of Repression, which covers life under Soviet rule; and the Museum of History of Uzbekistan, whose exhibits span pre-history to the present day. Smaller museums, such as the Samarkand Museum of Local Lore – located within a historic merchant’s house – offer diverting alternatives.

Uzbekistan’s architecture

The seventh-century Muslim conquests brought Islam to Uzbekistan, while Timur’s rule saw new Islamic buildings commissioned, and old ones restored. Today, Uzbekistan’s Islamic architecture is arguably its greatest draw. Centuries-old mausoleums, mosques and madrasahs dazzle with their decorations and scale. Every inch is a treat for the eyes, full of intricate mosaics, multifoil arches, shapely cupolas, and turquoise ceramics. Exemplars of this style can be found in Khiva’s old town, Itchan Kala; Bukhara’s historic quarters; and the Registan Square in Samarkand.

Uzbekistan’s capital city, Tashkent, lost many of its old buildings in a devastating earthquake – though surviving landmarks such as the Barak Khan Madrasah, Kukeldash Madrasah, and Russian Orthodox Cathedral still impress. The city is better known for its Soviet-era constructions – not least the metro, whose stations rival those of Moscow in their grandeur.

Venture beyond the cities to find interesting examples of more rustic architecture, such as traditional Uzbek yurts favoured by nomadic herders. You may even choose to stay in one.

Uzbekistan’s cuisine

From a treat for the eyes, to a treat for the taste buds. Uzbek cuisine has been shaped by the history and geography of this region. Traders, conquerors and nomads arrived from all corners of Asia, bringing with them ingredients, recipes, cooking techniques and religious customs. On the menu, you’ll find common characteristics of Turkic, Chinese and Eastern European cuisine.

The national dish of Uzbekistan is plov: pilau rice simmered in a rich stew of vegetables and meat – typically lamb, and more rarely beef or chicken. As it bubbles away on an open fire, piled in a big kazan cauldron, the aromas will set your tummy rumbling. For foodies on a holiday to Uzbekistan, we can arrange a live plov cookery demonstration.

Other favourites include lagman, a warming broth featuring hand-pulled noodles, vegetables, and lamb or beef; shashlik (shish kabab); delightful spiced-meat dumplings called manti, and their smaller cousins, chuchvara; flat-loaved bread called non; and a hearty one-pot stew called dimlama.

To sate your sweet tooth as the Uzbeks do, enjoy dried fruits and nuts, or a more indulgent halvah sweet, washed down with green tea – the national drink, served in teahouses (chaikhanas) across the country. Viticulture is somewhat in its infancy, here, but tastings at one of the dozen wineries can be arranged.

Uzbekistan’s arts and crafts

As you browse and barter around Uzbekistan’s bazaars, you’ll be greeted by stalls filled with locally made crafts. On everything from slippers to fabric caps; pottery to jewellery; intricate patterns abound, showcasing the attention to detail and expertise poured into each item by their makers.

Those makers are drawing from a deep well of tradition. Uzbek crafts are renowned, and each region specialises in one form or another, from embroidery to ceramics. As a result, souvenir hunters are spoilt for choice.

For a deeper insight into the history of Uzbekistan’s handicrafts, visit the Uzbekistan State Museum of Applied Art in Tashkent. Housed in a suitably ornate 1930s building, thousands of exhibits run the gamut of decorative arts, including jewellery making, woodcarving, ceramics, embroidery, and gold weaving.

The ancient Silk Road earnt its name from the sought-after silk sent west from China. But it was a different sort of ‘silk’ for which ancient Uzbekistan was renowned. Samarkand became famous for producing silk paper, then considered the best in the world. This ‘lost’ technique of papermaking has been revitalised in Koni Ghil village, and you can now visit to see the age-old process first-hand – and even take part.

Feeling inspired to visit Uzbekistan? When travelling the Silk Road, an escorted tour is highly recommended. Join our Uzbekistan: Heart of Central Asia itinerary for a comprehensive tour, or choose Uzbekistan: The Golden Road to Samarkand for a culture-focused itinerary.