At the heart of the ancient silk route, Uzbekistan is steeped in trading history. Largely unvisited by modern travellers, its ancient cities are living museums of stunning architecture that easily evoke the romanticism of the silk trade.
The country’s greatest treasure — the glittering city of Samarkand — lies at the junction of Central Asia’s ancient caravan routes. It is here that the immense blue domes of the Registan, the most spectacular architectural ensemble in the whole of Central Asia, stopped many a traveller in their tracks. It is also here that the 19th century ‘Great Game’ struck terror into the hearts of all the players, including two British officers, Conolly and Stoddart, who lost their heads in the great square in the summer of 1842 after weeks of hellish incarceration.
Alexander the Great, 329 BC
Itineraries relating to Central Asia
Trip Reports relating to Central Asia
Fiona’s travel tips
THE GREAT GAME: The Great Game refers to the 19th century battle for supremacy played out by the Russian and British empires for political dominance in Central Asia. While Russia spread east, swallowing up the Silk Route khanates of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, Britain edged determinedly north towards the forbidden land of Tibet, with the aid of knowledge accumulated by fabled pundits like Nain Singh. The very centre of this political chessboard was the Gilgit Valley, where, high among the mountains, the borders of India, China, Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan all converge.
DON’T MISS: Drinking green tea in Bukhara’s Lyiab-y-hauz in the shade of an ancient mulberry tree, watching some of the elders sitting cross-legged on charpoys bent over a chess board.
BOOKS: Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game and Eastern Approaches by Sir Fitzroy Maclean.
BEST TIME TO GO: The ideal time to travel is May to September, apart from Turkmenistan where the height of summer is better avoided.
FOR THE ACTIVE: For wild, remote, back to nature trekking, Tajikistan is perfect.
WHY NOT: Start your journey in Azerbaijan and cross by local ferry from Baku into Turkmenistan, the hottest, driest and harshest of the stans, where Ashkhabad’s Sunday Market will be swarming with the dominant Turkmen tribe, the Tekke, resplendent in their extraordinary shaggy hats.
Kazakhstan: 9 hours (direct)
Kyrgyzstan: 9½ hours (direct)
Tajikistan: 9 hours (indirect)
Turkmenistan: 9 hours (indirect)
Uzbekistan: 8¾ hours (direct)
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“I had a wonderful visit to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The programme and the arrangements in support of it went like clockwork. Djamshid was first rate and always ready to go the extra mile.
I successfully crossed into Kyrgyzstan, an experience not for the faint hearted, but the warm good spirits of fellow Uzbek and Kyrgyz travellers made the process a real social education! Olga, my Kyrgyz guide, was on hand to whisk me away once the formalities were finally completed.
So first things first: a big ‘thank you‘ to you for the first class arrangements for my travels. They really have been excellent. The combination of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan was perfect. The former essentially for the buildings and their historical context. The latter for the breath-taking scenery. And both for their peoples and their distinctive ways of life. Travelling solo to unfamiliar areas could be an intimidating prospect but you have always found me brilliant guides. They – and the drivers on whom one’s life depends – are critical to a visit’s success for me. They are one’s eyes and ears; they provide layers of information and perspectives that would otherwise be totally missed. I cannot speak too highly both of Djamshid (Uzbekistan) and Olga (Kyrgyzstan). Their attention to the programme, to my preferences (so well relayed by you) and to my well-being was first class. As I said in my previous email, Djamshid was always ready to go the extra mile. That applied equally to Olga.”
Dr David Carter, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan
“Our journey along the Silk Route was truly memorable. These beautiful ancient lands with their Khanate cities and bazaars, unforgiving deserts and high, snow-capped mountains with lakes and lonely passes are memories we will treasure. Our guides were knowledgeable, helpful and fun, sharing their own family lives and culture with us, helping put all that we saw into a social context. The planning and organisation of our trip was faultless and Fiona’s first-hand knowledge and contacts in Central Asia smoothed a forced change in plans at short notice efficiently and effortlessly. Thank you so much.”
Mr and Mrs Rob Aylott, Central Asia from Baku to Urumqi