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Uzbekistan West to East: the Magic of the Silk Road

Explore this still unknown and incredibly stimulating country. Kind people, a unique culture, and mind-blowing architecture are ready to welcome you in Uzbekistan’s magical destinations.

A building in Khiva

by Alessandro Ramazzotti

13 de sept de 2023

Uzbekistan is a landlocked country in Central Asia, so it would be impossible to describe this itinerary with the more proverbial saying “coast to coast”. However, it is possible to travel from one end to the other and experience all of its wonders – deserts, mountains, lakes, and extraordinary cities.

The country eased the procedures for international visitors in 2017, after a two-decade-long regime was replaced by the current one. Since then, the Government has been promoting the development of tourism through the renovation of cultural attractions and civil infrastructure, and advertisements broadcast abroad. The main narrative is enhancing the country’s importance for the ancient Silk Road – the trade corridor that linked Europe to China and the Far East.

People from different races, cultures, creeds, and places were meeting in old Uzbeki bazaars, and the more local khans and merchants became rich, the more they were able to build the magnificent mosques and madrasahs that we can still see today.

Enjoy this three-week-long itinerary that will bring you to the most beautiful and renowned destinations in Uzbekistan, starting from the West – that is, entering from Kazakhstan – and ending in the East – where the roads to other Central Asian countries will be waiting for you!

Day 1-3: Nukus – Karakalpakstan and Stravinsky Gallery

In Nukus you can experience how it feels to be nowhere. You are in Uzbekistan but the people’s physical traits and the local culture has a lot of influence from Kazakhstan. The nearest big city is Urgench, about 500 kms to the South. And as soon as you exit Nukus, an arid desert with mostly dry bushes is all you can find.

At the western border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, there are frequent trains between Beyneu and Nukus and they are quite comfortable – although the procedure at the border may take up to two hours and might be in the middle of the day when the sun is burning hot (I can say from personal experience).

The train station in Nukus has two flags: one is Uzbeki and the other Karakalpaki, which is very similar to the first but with orange instead of white and with a different number of stars. This, when I arrived, was an interesting starting point, as I wanted to better understand how people in Karakalpakstan feel about their different culture.

Karakalpakstan also has a (not too) different language, and signs in Nukus are usually written both in Karakalpaki and Uzbeki. On the train station, beside Nukus, there is Nōkis.

Unfortunately, I could only spend one evening in Nukus, but I recommend a stay of three days, which will be enough for a visit to the city and to its famous museum, the Stravinsky Gallery. It is located in Nukus’ main square and from the outside it looks huge – we regretted being unable to visit the inside too.

Walking in the park near the river that crosses the city is a great way to spend the evenings in Nukus. There you can find some street food, a small amusement park, and some cafes. Before entering the park, we decided to buy an interesting food, made of steamed bread stuffed with vegetables, that we thought to be typical Karakalpaki. We asked the lady about it, and she said it’s actually Korean but trending in Uzbekistan. Well, not really a traditional cultural experience, but it was tasty!

Day 4-7: Khiva – a desert citadel

Khiva (see related post) is a wonderful gem of the desert! Although it is close to Urgench and not as isolated as Nukus, Khiva’s old citadel Itchan Kala feels out of space and time.

A stop of three days is again enough to fully enjoy the vibe of the city. You can buy a pass and visit multiple tourist attractions with it. We just walked around and tried to feel how the old traders on the Silk Road were feeling when they saw from far away Khiva’s old and high minarets pointing fiercely towards the sky. We tried to imagine the robbers hiding behind dark street corners with knives ready to steal the rich traders’ money. We imagined old sultans and beautiful princesses with their drapes moving elegantly behind them.

All of this isn’t too hard to do in Khiva. The houses and the city walls match the color of the desert sand, and the decorated mosques, madrasahs, and minarets with their beautiful shapes create some magic that you can’t miss!

To have a good – but rather expensive – meal with a view of Itchan Kala’s main square, check out Terrassa Café. During the day it’s impossible to sit on the rooftop, but in the evening it’s quite an experience!

For a pleasant and budget-friendly stay you can go to East Star Hostel, a 10-minute walk from Itchan Kala out of the city walls. We found the place really nice, cozy, and clean.

It is hard to be surprised by anything after visiting Khiva, but Bukhara might still do the trick. Leave Khiva by bus and cross the flat, dry, seemingly never-ending Uzbeki desert and get ready to enjoy other wonders.

Kalta minor and the bazaar in Khiva

Samanidov Mausoleum and the Mosque in Bukhara

Day 8-11: Bukhara – the bazaars of the Silk Road

In Bukhara the bus station is a bit out of town, so you’ll have to take a taxi to the city center. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend places to stay in the city, as we personally camped in the big park not far from the bus station. If you have a tent, that’s a great option. On the third and last day that we were there, a policeman came to check on us, but once he understood we were tourists, he just greeted us and went away.

We left our luggage at a small burger place near a bus stop, where Tatiana, an incredibly nice woman, allowed us to keep them for the day.

We started our tour from the Chor Minor, a little mosque with four short, blue-domed minarets. It is a cute building, but nothing compared to the other wonders of Bukhara. Some ladies will try to sell you a ticket to climb up the first floor of Chor Minor. Although I didn’t try it myself, I don’t think it’s an experience worth paying for, given that the first floor is merely five meters higher than the ground.

After the Chor Minor, walking on the main road we reached the center of Bukhara. It is full of beautiful madrasahs, where today small artisans sell their crafts and cafés serve cold drinks. Near the madrasahs there are the domes of the old bazaars of the Silk Road and a few hammams (the Turkish bath, also known as banja from the Russian word for sauna).

Walking under the domes feels timeless: you can imagine yourself being an old trader who, after a long trip in the desert, decides to find rest under the refreshing domes and take a relaxing bath in the hammams to wash away the dirt of the road.

While Khiva feels more like a city of magic, khans, and princesses, Bukhara feels like the city of trade and commerce – in a good way, of course.

After a long break at Khalva Café – a great place to take rest and enjoy some good food and drinks – we continued on the main road, and right when we thought that the wonders were over, we reached the square where there is the Kalyan Mosque and its huge minaret. It is a mesmerizing view! The shapes of the mosaics are incredible and the architecture of the buildings in the square is a real masterpiece. I couldn’t stop clicking photos!

Not far from the Kalyan Mosque, on the main road, there is Bukhara’s palace and famous ark, but after the wonders seen before, we didn’t pay much attention to it. In front of the palace, there is a nice park to rest a bit and enjoy the freshness of the trees. If you cross the park, you can find another interesting building: the Bolo Hauz Mosque. Its wooden pillars – all of which are carved in different shapes – and the colorful painted motifs make it a very pleasant view. Take a rest on the benches in front of it and feel like a trader of ancient times who, at the end of a long working day, would reach the mosque and just sit and relax.

If you pass Bolo Hauz and keep walking straight in the next park, you can reach the Samanidov Mausoleum, a small ancient tomb from the 9th century, finely decorated with bricks arranged in beautiful shapes.

Bukhara is not a big town and you can actually cover all of it in one day. However, I would recommend taking a few days to explore every corner of the city just wandering around. If you want to relax and escape the heat, hide in some hammam or bargain with the carpet-sellers under the fresh domes to bring home a nice souvenir.

a small market in front of beautiful blue and beige buildings

Leopard mosaic and "the starry room" in Samarkand

Day 11-15: Samarkand – the legendary city

When I was telling my relatives that I would go to Samarkand, all of them were amazed at the thought. Just the name of Samarkand evokes exotic images of far-away lands. It is definitely a great city! But it’s also the most touristic in Uzbekistan, which caused some of its authenticity to fade away.

Nevertheless, we really enjoyed it. Registan Square left us – as all the other tourists on visit that day – speechless. It’s so majestic and delicate at the same time; thanks to the arrangement of the mosques and madrasahs it feels like a big hug of beauty!

The mosaic that we found more interesting was the one of the leopard (the symbol of Samarkand) with the sun on the back. The legend about the leopard of Samarkand is very sweet: once the city was ready, a leopard came down from the Zerafshan mountains and took a walk around, leaving peacefully as it came after having checked and approved all the buildings. We really liked it because of the peace it evokes; in other cultures, the leopard would have probably been killed by the emperor of the city and its skin used as a carpet. Not in Uzbekistan.

When we first went to Registan Square – the venue of the old bazaar – I thought we would spend a short time there, but we ended up staying a few hours. Everything, every single corner is full of wonders. The highlight is the room in the madrasah straight in front of you when entering the complex, where the gold and blue, extremely defined paintings will make you feel like floating in the sky. We spent 15 minutes sitting in that room, just looking at the incredible roof.

Not far from Registan Square, there is the Bibi Khanym Mosque, another masterpiece of Uzbek architecture. Luckily the guy at the entrance let us in for free because paying the entrance to all the monuments of Uzbekistan was becoming a bit of a financial burden.

Right next to it, there is the bazaar. It is not too big and it’s rather modern and less interesting than those in Khiva and Bukhara. However, you can still find some tasty nuts and jellies, and change your money from the weird-looking guys holding a black purse.

In Samarkand, another monument worth visiting is the Tamerlan Mausoleum, where Amir Temur’s wife and other family members are reportedly buried. Walking among the blue façades of the small mausoleums is the perfect definition of an oriental dream. All of them are similar but diverse, and their roofs inside are spectacular. Unfortunately, I cannot read Arabic, but the flowy shapes of its alphabet always amaze me – and Arabic writings are everywhere on the mausoleums!

Ironically enough, the centuries-old mausoleums with ancient princesses buried inside sits right next to the modern cemetery.

TIP: you can actually enter from the cemetery into the Tamerlan complex to avoid paying the entrance fee.

I wouldn’t recommend a visit to the Ulugbek Observatory, unless you are a passionate astronomer. After all the beauty in the center of Samarkand, this small monument slightly out of the city center will leave you disappointed.

Overall, Samarkand is a must-visit, but if you come from Tashkent, don’t be afraid to venture further to Khiva and Bukhara, otherwise you’ll miss a lot of what Uzbekistan has to offer.

Now, to the capital!

Day 16-18: Tashkent – the capital

Samarkand and Tashkent are well-connected by trains and buses. You can even choose to travel in more luxury (but still quite cheap, as all transports in Uzbekistan) with the brand-new Afrosyob fast train.

Tashkent is a modern, fast-developing city. Since 2017, when Uzbekistan opened to the world, investments have boomed and futuristic skyscrapers mushroomed in the center, along with modern parks and beautiful boulevards. It is nice to walk in the city center and enjoy all of this modern vibe, especially after the travels back in time that the Uzbeki desert cities evoked.

The Tashkent metro is famous for its nicely decorated stations. My favorite is Kosmonavtlar that, as the name suggests, reminds of space travel and astronauts.

After the beauties of the desert, the best thing to do in Tashkent would probably be to enjoy its modernity and plenty of services. Different foods, people, and markets give the city a frenetic mood. At the same time, in some neighborhoods it is possible to see buildings that date back to the USSR times, adding some diversity to the city.

But if you still want to have a glimpse of tradition, pay a visit to Chorsu Bazaar, the biggest open-air bazaar in Central Asia. It is full of unimaginable products, and you will for sure find a souvenir to bring back home.

We were hosted by a friendly guy we met on Couchsurfing, who cooked us tasty Iranian dishes and entertained us with talks on the traditions of Iran, Uzbekistan, and Central Asia in general.

Day 19-21: Kokand – the gateway to other adventures

From Tashkent, you can take a train to Kokand, in the far east of the country. It is a small town that is worth a visit.

Kokand is the oldest town in Uzbekistan and it was once the capital of the Kokand Khanate. It retained some of its old beauty, the highlight of which is the big park in the city center, where the Castle of Kokand is located.

Although not comparable to the amazing places visited on the way from the west, the castle is beautiful and will serve well as a goodbye to all the Uzbeki wonders.

Apart from that, you can enjoy a walk in Kokand’s city center to look at the 19th-century Russian-style villas. We had the luck of meeting a very friendly taxi driver who gave us a tour of the city without asking a cent for payment (not even for the taxi ride!).

Take two days in Kokand to plan your next steps. Kokand is near the border with Kyrgyzstan and with Tajikistan, so you have plenty of opportunities to continue your tour in Central Asia (a shared taxi for two people to the Tajiki border cost us UZS 80000, about 8 USD).

A lot more wonders await you out there: the desert leaves the place to the mountains; Uzbekistan ends and new countries and cultures start. The Fergana Valley, where Kokand is located, is a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures – which also caused some trouble during the years.

Final tips and GO!

Uzbekistan is a wonderful country! Although in the eastern part there are also some natural sites that are worth visiting, cities are the best part of the country.

Ø Be aware that the Uzbeki chilla, the extremely hot summer weather, does not spare anyone. Make sure to be always well-equipped with water and a cover for your head.

Ø Uzbeki people eat meat at all times of the day. If you’re vegetarian, get ready to be flexible on your diet or to eat cheese and vegetables for a long time (from personal experience).

Ø Uzbekistan is a Muslim country, but since 2017 it has been quite open to Western influence. However, kissing in public and other shows of affection might not be well-seen.

Traveling in Uzbekistan is a great experience!  It is made easier by the fact that most travelers won’t need a visa for short stays. So don’t overthink it; the regime might change again and your opportunity to go might fade away before your eyes. Just go!

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