Uzbekistan (2004, 2005, 2006, 2010, and 2012)
I have been to Uzbekistan quite a few times, often as a launching pad for mountaineering trips to Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan (see here). Nevertheless, while Uzbekistan may not have as many big mountains as its two neighbors, it is blessed with three extraordinary cities rich in history: Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. Although the number of tourists visiting them has been increasing significantly in recent years, it is still very low compared to some European cities.
In my opinion, Samarkand has the most impressive historical buildings. Moreover, 80km south of Samarkand, the smaller city of Shakhrisabz is also an interesting place to visit as Timur, who was born in a nearby village, had chosen it to be his residence. Unfortunately, in recent years, too much has been done in Samarkand to make it even more attractive to tourists: new hotels and new streets with modern shops targeting tourists have opened near historical sites, the old and burstling bazaar has been replaced by a new orderly and dull one, and the remarkable Shah-i Zinda necropolis has been renovated to the point that it has lost much of its solemnity and authenticity. Samarkand remains a great city and I still like it, but I prefer the city I visited in 2004 over that of 2012.
In contrast, recent changes in Bukhara have in general been for the better. Despite its rather bloody history (in the 19th century many people were executed by being beheaded in the plaza before the entrance gate of the Ark fortress or by being thrown to their death from the top of the 45.6m Kalyan minaret), Bukhara has now a unique romantic and peaceful atmosphere. Its streets are lively (but not too much) and have kept much character. It is my favorite of the three cities.
The old Khiva (Itchan-Kala), which is well-separated from the new city, is an open-air museum focused on tourism. It concentrates many interesting buildings on a relatively small area, but it is totally lifeless, especially in the evening.
Click on the following links to see pictures of these cities:
Independent from these historical cities, a journey across Uzbekistan is also a pleasant experience. The following photos show a few familiar scenes of Uzbekistan:
- Uzbekistan produces what might very well be the best melons in the world, thanks to fertile soil, abundant sunshine, and much water running down from the Pamir mountains. The peak of the season is late summer. Then there are many melon vendors along the roads.
- The bread (flat, circular, with thick contour) is excellent and on sale in every market. At any time of the day, it is easy to buy freshly cooked bread. People in Uzbekistan eat bread with everything (including melon!). Each region has a slightly different kind of bread. The one of Samarkand (first photo below) is the most famous.
- Plov (rice pilaf, with pieces of lamb, carrots, onions and garlic) is a favorite dish in Uzbekistan. Carrots must be cut into thin strips directly available in markets. Yellow carrots are especially appreciated.
- Colorful markets selling fresh fruits and vegetables are ubiquitous across Uzbekistan.
- Eating shashliks and chatting on a low platform around a small table in a shady restaurant is another favorite pastime (not reserved to men).
In addition click here for a one-day excursion to the Gulkam Canyon in the Chimgan mountains, some 90km NE of Tashkent.