18th June, 2021
Journey to Uzbekistan
With its ancient architecture, desert landscapes and bustling bazaars, Uzbekistan is fascinating, says Caroline Eden.
Come! It’s safe, take my hand.
My guide reached out, encouraging me on to Khiva’s bastioned city walls. I stepped up, my eyes following swallows that zoomed between sparkling mosques, madrasas and mausolea. Surrounded by this mile-and-a-half belt of mud brick wall, first built in the 5th century, then added to over the years, is Central Asia's most intact and far-flung Silk Road city.
Sunset is the time to marvel at its medieval kernel, the Ichon-Qala or inner city, when the light morphs from ginger-ale brown to sharp pink, before dusk finally silhouettes the minarets. Desert-girdled Khiva may have a reputation for being an over-restored ‘city museum’, but only a cynical eye could fail to be charmed by such sights. The city’s long history is intriguing, too.
First a desert fort and trading post, then a barbaric slave-trading town, the city was central to the Great Game – a struggle between the British and Russian Empires in Central Asia. In 1875 British officer Frederick Burnaby, famously 6ft 4in, weighing 20 stone and fluent in seven languages, arrived here on an unofficial spying mission at a time when the Russians had closed the region to Europeans. His book, A Ride to Khiva, became a bestseller when published in 1877.
Before leaving Khiva, I revisited the stubby Kalta Minor Minaret, all decorative glazed tiles and majolica, before following staycationing Uzbeks into the Juma Mosque. There, in semi-darkness, we weaved through the 200 wooden pillars that crowd the interior, each one carved at a different time by a different master. Some date to the 10th century while others, etched with intricate geometric designs, are from the 15th. To walk through them is like wandering in a holy forest.
I left Khiva, journeying by car through the scrubland and wind-rippled sands of the Kyzyl Kum (Red Sand) Desert. Dotted with tiny white lilies, the sand also carries the memories of Silk Road camel caravans, which would plod for weeks, loaded with precious spices and fabrics. This sparked my book, Red Sands, a travelogue through Central Asia with recipes, beginning with lunch taken at a simple café in the heart of the Kyzyl Kum. Wherever you tread in Uzbekistan, you are following in the footsteps of the greatest travellers and conquerors in history, including Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and, more recently, Fitzroy Maclean (said to be one of the inspirations for James Bond), and Colin Thubron.
Holy Bukhara (its mosque-filled historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is the marketplace of Uzbekistan. Under the cool brick arches of old trading domes are covered bazaars where the eyes are drawn to painted plates as big as bicycle wheels, the bold stripes of chapans (gowns, pictured opposite) and old Soviet medals.
Back in the lanes, one of Bukhara's many architectural masterpieces is the Ismail Samani Mausoleum, built entirely with terracotta bricks. It was completed in 905, making it the city’s oldest Muslim monument. Being largely pedestrianised, Bukhara offers plenty of cafés serving pots of aromatic tea flavoured with saffron, ginger or cumin.
This is a place for slowing down, and one that rewards the curious, the earlyrisers keen to explore the alleyways. You might stumble on a tailor stitching a suzani (tribal textile) bedspread or pull up a chair under a mulberry tree at Lyabi-Hauz, a 17th century plaza built around a pool, and watch the sun paint the nearby madrasas. As an old local saying goes:
In all other parts of the world light descends upon earth. From holy Samarkand and Bukhara, it ascends.
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