Uzbekistan the golden middle of the Silk Road
Many visitors don't realize that Uzbekistan is a relatively new name for a very ancient culture. Our country's name dates back only to 1924, when the Soviet Union carved up Imperial Russia's former Turkestan colonies into five states and named them based on the dominant language spoken there. History buffs will be more familiar with the names this region was known by in ancient times, among them Bactria, Sogdiana and Transoxiana. There wasn't just one but several overland trade routes between China and Europe but all converged on the territory of present-day Uzbekistan, which was the geographic midpoint between where silk and other goods were picked up by camel caravans and their final destinations. China discovered how to make silk around 2700 BC and -- by threatening death to anyone who revealed the secrets to a foreigner -- managed to retain a monopoly for 3000 years. Ultimately, though, word got out and our people have been producing silk for more than 1000 years. Our fabric, called silk ikat, is made by a complicated technique which involves weaving rather than dyeing the colour into the fabric. Often, this is still done on looms operated by hand. And our ikats, which are now also made in silk/cotton blends, are so distinctive that nothing remotely resembling them is produced anywhere else in the world. Another special experience you'll have that many visitors to Uzbekistan don't: We'll visit a now world-famous art museum in Nukus, capital of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, whose history is as extraordinary as its massive art collection.
Day 1: Arrival in Tashkent
After your flight lands in our nation's capital, you'll be picked up at the airport and driven to your hotel to rest after your long journey.
Day 2: Tashkent’s Main Attractions
Today, we will visit the Museum of Applied Art of Uzbekistan, housed in a restored pre-revolution mansion once owned by the wealthy St. Petersburg aristocrat and statesman Alexander Polovtsov. Among the collections in this museum are silk embroidery, called suzani; musical instruments; ceramics and porcelain; decorative wood carving and of course, silks, carpets and other textiles. All of these traditional arts are still alive and well in Uzbekistan so what you see and learn about in the museum today, you will also see and recognize in other forms as you travel through our country.
We will also escort you on a sightseeing tour of the historic old part of our nation's capital. Even though the areas of our city that you saw on your drive from the airport yesterday look modern, Tashkent's history goes back about 2,500 years. But this is an earthquake-prone region and unfortunately for many of our ancient landmarks, in 1966, a devastating earthquake destroyed much of the city, with terrible loss of life. It took decades to restore some of our masterpieces of medieval Islamic architecture to their former glory but we think you'll agree that the results have been worth the effort.
We'll visit two of the Old City's most magnificent 16th century showpieces, the Kukeldash Madrassah and the Hasti-Imam complex, a square constructed around the tomb of the great 10th century Islamic scholar, scientist and poet Abu-Bakr Muhammad Kaffal Shashi. This complex includes the Friday mosque of Hasti (meaning "sainted") Imam, the 16th century Barak-Khan Madrassah and the mausoleum housing the remains of Kaffal Shashi. Though the library here holds about 20,000 books and 3,000 manuscripts, its most famous possession is the world's oldest Holy Koran, transcribed by Caliph Othman in Medina in the year 651, only 19 years after the Prophet Muhammad's death.
Tashkent is one of very few cities in the world that can boast of having a mass transit system so resplendent that it qualifies as a major tourist attraction. After the 1966 earthquake, workers came from all over the Soviet Union to help rebuild Tashkent, not as the ancient Silk Road city it had been before the natural disaster but as a model of the ideal contemporary Soviet urban centre. The creation of the city's famed subway system, inspired by Moscow's, is one proud legacy of that initiative. Though the opulent design of each station of the four-line Metro is unique, all symbolically celebrate some aspect of our nation's history and culture.
In the evening, you'll dine in the home of the Rahimovs, a family of renowned ceramic artists.
Day 3: Nukus then on to Khiva
Today, we'll eat an early breakfast then head to the airport to catch a flight to Nukus, the capital of the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, which is internationally famous for two attractions with an unlikely relationship to each other.
In 1950, a Russian artist named Igor Savitsky accompanied the Khorezm Archaeological and Ethnographic Expedition to the ruins outside Nukus, dating back to the 4th century BC, of what were once mighty fortress complexes and settlements of the Zoroastrian civilization. Savitsky's job was to sketch artifacts unearthed during excavations but he fell so deeply in love with the people and culture of this region that he decided to make his home here.
At first, Savitsky began collecting the unique art, weaving, clothing, jewellery and ornamentation of the Karakalpak people but his interests soon branched out to the work of Central Asia’s artists in general. Among them were Russians who had migrated to the region in order to escape Moscow’s persecution of artists who refused to adopt what dictator Joseph Stalin and some of his successors considered to be the only acceptable style and subject matter for Soviet art: Socialist Realism. This idealized representation of life in the new Soviet Utopia, usually portraying handsome, healthy people joyously performing manual labour, was art in the service of State propaganda. Many artists who refused to buckle under paid a terrible price for their aesthetic convictions.
With the full collusion of top Karakalpak Communist Party officials, Savitsky managed to wheedle enough funding from Moscow to finance his art museum project and keep it going. If the Kremlin had suspected what this money was being used to buy, Savitsky and everyone who supported him would have met untimely ends but as far as Moscow was concerned, Nukus was in the middle of nowhere, a place where nothing of interest to anyone could possibly be going on. The remoteness and inaccessibility of that city, separated from Russia by vast swaths of desert, were Savitsky’s greatest allies.
Throughout many trips to Russia, Savitsky sought out the relatives of Avant Garde artists who had been “repressed” – sentenced to incarceration in mental hospitals, prisons or Siberian labour camps – and bought the art that they’d squirreled away in secret hiding places, providing them with much-needed income. His mission to rescue these banned paintings from destruction and preserve them for future generations was so all-consuming that reportedly, little else in life interested him. Not even in 1984, after he was admitted to a Moscow hospital to be treated for advanced lung disease caused by overexposure to harsh chemical preservatives, did Savitsky let up, brokering new acquisitions for his art museum even on his deathbed.
Today, the Savitsky Art Museum’s holdings include about 90,000 pieces, 40,000 consisting of outlawed art snatched out from under the noses of the Communist Party bigwigs by its sly founder, a collection second only to that of the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. Even though the Savitsky museum itself is a respectable size, only a small fraction of its collections can be exhibited at one time and many pieces in storage still await restoration.
In 2010, the release of the documentary film The Desert of Forbidden Art, by U.S. filmmakers Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev, helped bring the story of Savitsky’s magnificent obsession to the attention of art lovers outside Uzbekistan. Today, the priceless gift that Savitsky bequeathed to his adopted homeland, one of the poorest regions of our country, has attracted so many international visitors that this art museum is rapidly becoming one of Uzbekistan’s must-see attractions.
After lunch, we'll set off for the three-hour drive to Khiva but stop on the way to visit the ruins of the ancient Zoroastrian fortress complexes of Ayaz-Kala and Toprak-Kala.
Day 4: Walking tour of Old Khiva
Unlike Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara, Khiva's old city is almost uninhabited. With 54 perfectly-preserved or restored historical buildings and monuments, including mosques, madrassahs, mausoleums, minarets and palace complexes, in so compact an area, it's almost like experiencing Samarkand in miniature. Highlights of the city include an underground mosque, the courtyard of the royal harem – and the unique symbol of the city, called Kalta Minor, meaning “short minaret” -- which looks much like an elaborately-decorated industrial chimney. And therein hangs a tale...
If this minaret had ever been finished, it might have been taller than the famous Kalyan minaret you'll see in Bukhara and, according to one of several stories associated with it, this might be the reason it wasn't. Historically, the khans of Khiva and the emirs of Bukhara, both rivals for influence in the region, were mortal enemies whose armies constantly waged war on each other. Allegedly, Khiva's Muhammad Amin Khan, who had ordered the construction of this minaret, meant for it to tower over Bukhara's great minaret but when Bukhara's then-emir Nasrullah – the same emir, nicknamed “the Butcher,” who had once ordered a man to be thrown to his death from the minaret -- got wind of this, he vowed it would never happen.
As the story goes, Nasrullah offered the minaret's architect more money if he'd abandon that project and build his mighty minaret in Bukhara – and the architect agreed. But when the Khivan khan found out about this double-cross, he put out a contract on the architect's life, who fled to save his own skin. Since there was no one else who could complete the job, work on the minaret ceased after the death of the Khivan khan in 1860, so what you see today is what it looked like then.
Day 5: Onward to Bukhara
The drive from Khiva to Bukhara takes six to seven hours through the Kyzyl-Kum desert so we'll leave after breakfast but stop by the Amu-Darya River, called the Oxus in ancient times, for a picnic lunch. You'll have dinner after you check into the Hotel Emir in Bukhara's Old City.
Day 6: Bukhara Sharif
Since Emir Travel and Hotel Emir are both in Bukhara, we freely admit to having a bias in favour of our ancient city, once one of the most renowned centres of learning and culture in the Islamic world. One of the greatest charms of our Old City is that almost everything worth seeing and experiencing, including shops, restaurants, covered bazaars and of course, our monumental buildings, is within easy walking distance.
Sharif, meaning 'noble' in Arabic, is a designation bestowed only on a handful of cities, Mecca and Medina among them, with special religious importance in Islam. Bukhara earned its sharif status as the 9th century birthplace of Imam al-Bukhari, one of the greatest collectors of written hadith -- sayings or anecdotes attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. For generations before al-Bukhari`s lifelong work, these stories had only been passed down orally.
Today, you'll see the majestic Kalyan minaret, the symbol of our city. Although it was built in 1121, after Bukhara was sacked by Genghis Khan and his army in a century later, legend has it that the Mongol emperor was so impressed that he ordered it spared while everything else around it was destroyed, including the original mosque. The mosque and the madrassah now facing each other across the square were both constructed in the 16th century.
Some time in the 1800s, one of Bukhara's cruellest emirs, Nasrullah Khan, ordered a man charged with defacing the minaret to be thrown from the top of it. However, our historians say that there's no truth to the widely-believed “Tower of Death” story that executions such as this took place regularly. After all, five times every day, a muezzinhad to climb up and down the 104 steps of the interior spiral staircase to summon the faithful to prayer.
In Soviet times, Bukhara downplayed the most poignant historical aspect of a residence that used to be known only as “a rich merchant's house.” In fact, the merchant who once owned it, a dealer in the pelts of karakul sheep (called Persian lamb in the West), was the father of Faizullah Khojaev, who was a controversial figure to Bukharans. Khojaev, the leader of a dissident group that helped the Red Army overthrow the last emir of Bukhara in 1920, became the first president of what was then called the Bukharan People's Soviet Republic.
But like many other people of his day, Khojaev ran afoul of Joseph Stalin and, after a show trial in Moscow, was executed by firing squad on March 13, 1938, his 42nd birthday. His mother, sister, wife and daughter were all exiled to a prison camp in Siberia, although his mother died enroute. Khojaev was rehabilitated in 1966 and today, the house where he once lived now contains much of his personal and family memorabilia.
While there, you'll also see displays of the traditional clothing worn by Uzbek people before the 1920 revolution, including paranjas, the all-obscuring veil that Bukharan women were required to wear in public.
Day 7: More to admire about Bukhara
After breakfast, we begin the day with a visit to the Ark Fortress Museum. This massive structure, known to have existed in some form for more than 2,000 years, has suffered a great deal of damage over the years, most recently after a buildup of ice and snow caused part of the roof over the entrance to collapse. But before the revolution, the Ark was the centre of government for the entire emirate of Bukhara and also housed the main palace of the last emir of Bukhara, Said Alim Khan. Today, the rooms open to the public house historical displays.
Some of the area of Registan Square in front of the Ark had to be sacrificed when roads were widened so like the fortress itself, it used to be much larger. Here, Bukharans used to gather to watch entertainments such as wrestling, jugglers, trapeze artists – as well as public floggings and executions.
Sites of interest near the fortress include the remains of the walls that used to encircle the city, with doors that were closed, locked and barred to all non-residents after dark; the Bolo-Khauz complex, consisting of a reservoir, mosque and minaret; and the intriguing Chashma-Ayub (Job's Well) shrine and mausoleum.
According to legend, long ago, the prophet Job, whose tale of terrible suffering is told both in the Old Testament and the Koran, once visited what is now Bukhara during a drought. Distressed to learn that the people here didn't have enough drinking water, Job drove his staff into the ground, causing a stream of clean, clear water burst forth. Tamerlane ordered the construction of this building in the 14th century and local people still come here to collect the spring water, which is believed to have healing properties.
One of the oldest of Bukhara's monuments is the Samanid mausoleum, built between 892 and 943, to house the remains of Ismail Samani, an emir who ruled in Central Asia, and a few of his relatives.
The goodies on offer in our main bazaar, also in this immediate area, are likely to whet your appetite for lunch (if you haven't already ruined it by overindulgence in samples of the merchandise). In the afternoon, we'll visit the summer palace of the last emir of Bukhara, not far outside the city. Although this site had been used as a country estate by many previous emirs, this palace was completed in 1918, which allowed Alim Khan only two short years to enjoy it. There, you'll also see an exhibition of hand-made suzani.
In late afternoon, in the courtyard of the Divan Begi madrassah, an Uzbek Folklore ensemble will perform for you, followed by dinner.
Day 8: From Bukhara to Nurata
After breakfast, we'll set out on the three-hour drive to Nurata, pausing in Vabkent, not far from Bukhara, to see a 12th century minaret, a slimmer, shorter version of the Kalyan minaret. We'll also stop in Gijduvan, the centre of Uzbekistan's ceramic arts, so you can see how our country's unique pottery is created.
Highlights of Nurata, which was founded by Alexander the Great in 327 BC, include the ruins of his fortress and a sacred shrine complex, constructed around a spring (called a chashma) teeming with trout, whose water is believed to have healing properties. After sightseeing, we’ll have lunch with a local family, where you’ll how our intricate suzani embroidery art is created.
From there, we'll proceed to a Kazakh yurt camp in the desert, where you'll ride camels to the shores of Aydarkul Lake. We'll have dinner back at the camp, then gather around a bonfire under the stars, and after breakfast the next morning, set out for Samarkand.
Day 9: Nurata to Samarkand
After breakfast, we'll set out for Samarkand, a three-hour drive from Nurata, and check into our hotel there. After lunch, prepare to be dazzled by the splendour of a city which is often called one of architectural wonders of the world. In 1370, Tamerlane decided to make Samarkand his imperial capital. To that end, he brought in the greatest artisans and craftsmen from all over his vast empire to turn his dream into reality.
Today's Samarkand is believed to be very close to Tamerlane's vision but photographs taken in the early 20th century show these monumental buildings in an advanced state of disrepair, the elaborate tilework all but gone in many places. In recent years, massive restoration projects have transformed the interiors and exteriors of mosques, madrassahs and mausoleums and this work is still in progress.
A number of colourful legends surround the story of the creation of the Mosque of Bibi-Khanum, one of Samarkand's architectural highlights, but the most credible is that Tamerlane ordered it built and named it after his favourite wife, a Mongolian princess.
Today, you'll also get the chance to pay your respects to Tamerlane himself, where he rests, along with various relatives, under the golden dome of the fabulous Gur-i Amir mausoleum.
Our tour allows time to explore another of Samarkand's claims to fame -- the city's excellent main bazaar.
Day 10: More Samarkand
Today, we turn our attention to some of Tamerlane's relatives. The most famous of them, Ulugh Beg, was a grandson who ruled over the lands known as Transoxiana from 1409 to 1449. Today, though, he is remembered mainly as an astronomer and a great patron of the sciences. He established the Ulugh Beg Observatory, a three-storey, cylinder-shaped building constructed around three huge astronomical instruments. The largest of these, a curving stone arch called the Fakhri sextant, was used to measure the angle of elevation of celestial bodies, allowing astronomers to calculate the length of a year to within 25 seconds – almost 200 years before telescopes were invented! After Ulugh Beg's death, the observatory was destroyed by religious fanatics but rediscovered in 1908 by Russian archaeologist Vassily Vyatkin. This discovery meant so much to Vyatkin that he asked to be – and is -- buried on the site.
We will also visit the Shakh-i-Zinda necropolis, a complex consisting of mosques and eleven mausoleums constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries to house the remains of members of the royal family and other nobles.
More ancient tombs, including one believed to hold the remains of the Old Testament prophet Daniel, are located in the nearby town of Afrasiab.
Day 11: Samarkand, then Tashkent and Ferghana
After breakfast, we'll visit a workshop specializing in hand-woven silk carpets. Then, we'll leave for the five-hour drive to Tashkent and have lunch at a chaikhona (traditional tea-house). After that, we'll head for the airport to board our flight to Ferghana.
Day 12: Ferghana – Margilan – Rishtan – Ferghana
On the last leg of our tour, we'll take in the attractions of the lush and lovely Ferghana valley, a region in eastern Uzbekistan surrounded by Tian-Shan and Gissar-Alay mountains. Using Ferghana city as our base, we'll visit Margilan, our country's centre of silk production, in the morning. There, you'll learn how the entire process works, from the unravelling of the fibres from silkworm cocoons to the finished product – our famous and unique khan-atlas silk fabric. While there, we'll also visit the Kaftarlik complex, built in the 18th century, which consists of a portal entrance, mosque, minaret and domed mausoleum. If you're interested in buying lengths of silk fabric or ready-to-wear clothing, there's no better place to browse for it than Margilan Bazaar.
After lunch, we'll visit Rishtan, a town famous for centuries for its elaborate ceramics painted in shades of blue, then return to Ferghana.
Day 13: Ferghana - Kokand – Tashkent
After breakfast, we'll leave for Tashkent but stop on the way to visit the city of Kokand, which used to be a sizable country until it was annexed by Imperial Russia in 1876. Before that, Bukhara, Khiva and Kokand were the three regional superpowers, although none was ever on anything except hostile, even warlike, terms with any other. In addition to eastern Uzbekistan, Old Kokand's territory used to include parts of modern Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and southeastern Kazakhstan.
Unfortunately, the historical landmarks of Old Kokand have not been as well preserved and restored as those in Khiva and Bukhara but parts of the fortress palace of Khudayar Khan, the last and most progressive khan of Kokand, have been remade into a museum with exhibits that illustrate the long history of this former nation at the crossroads of two major trade routes between India and China.
We'll reach Tashkent in the afternoon and after checking into the Hotel Uzbekistan there, you'll have time to spend any sums you still have left at Chorsu Bazaar in the Old City. The main difference between this bazaar and many other markets and vendors you’ve seen in Uzbekistan is that the merchants of Chorsu Bazaar don’t cater mainly to tourists but rather a demanding local clientele, which often translates to higher quality and lower prices than merchandise intended for the tourist trade.
Day 14: Farewell to Uzbekistan
We hope that you've enjoyed your time with us as much as we've enjoyed our time with you. Remember that international protocol requests your presence at the airport for registration at least three hours before your flight is scheduled to depart.