Sparkle and Splendour Uzbekistan

| April 4, 2013

Barbara Smith shares with us her recent experience of Uzbekistan.

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I dreamed of seeing the romantic cities of the Silk Road, the cold desert, the turquoise tiles, and maybe even a camel. When I finally made the trip, it exceeded my expectations.After an underwhelming experience on Uzbek Airlines, our holiday really began when we met our tour manager, Tahir. He was charming, knowledgeable and caring. We were greeted as privileged and welcome guests, by a host who was proud to show us his country. ashkent is smart and modern. Almost completely rebuilt after the earthquake of 1966, it doesn’t have the oppressive uniformity I’d feared. There are grand public buildings, trees, fountains, and lots of open space.

The old cities and historical sites are something else. Magnificent. None of the pictures prepare you for the scale of Khiva, Bukhara and – the jewel in Silk Road’s crown – Samarkand. It is not just a few old buildings with interesting tile-work. The mosques, madrassas and mausoleums are so many and so splendid that each new site brings a new intake of breath. To put it all into context, it’s worth mugging up on the history.

Between these centres of sophistication and learning are fascinating vistas of rolling desert, cotton-fields and glimpses into even older civilisations. The excavations at Toprak-Kala are quite unlike any site I’ve ever visited, and the fact that we were free to explore with no safety wires and ‘keep away’ signs was an added bonus.

True, the roads are bumpy and there are no prizes for the lavatories. The hotels came in a variety of shapes and sizes with friendly staff, comfortable beds and unpredictable plumbing. We ate out in restaurants and, even better, sometimes with local families in their homes.

The food itself was pretty bland. The staples are bread, soup, rice, soup, dumplings, vegetables, soup, kebabs, soup and bread, with local vodka, beer and wine to wash it down. Does make you wonder why so few of the spices that passed through on the caravans made it into the local cuisine...

Today, the markets are filled with silks, embroideries, wood carvings and ceramics. The downside is that it’s a cash culture and the local currency, the soum, is absurd. The largest note is only worth about 35p – you need a bagful to buy a meal. Credit cards are a rarity, and so buying anything of real value, like a carpet, is a challenge. Fortunately the souvenir traders take dollars.

Uzbekistan is full of contrast and sparkle. A place where people wear traditional padded silk coats like outdoor dressing-gowns; glittery white brides appear at improbable moments to be photographed; there are curtains and tablecloths made of shiny satin; and the must-have fashion accessory is a full set of gold teeth.

But my best memory will always be the beauty of the domes and minarets against the clear blue sky.

View Cox & Kings' holidays to Uzbekistan.

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