touring | uzbekistan - secrets of the silk road revealed
speeding along the silk road by high speed rail
returning to central asia filled me with excitement after my incredible experience last time around in the region. this former soviet republic is known for its mosques, mausoleums & the famous ancient silk road, it has been on my list to visit for years.
ironically, i would be traveling by high-speed rail throughout the country, known for the significant role it had along the silk road. as a huge rail fan, it's crazy to think that uzbekistan has a more extensive network of HSR than most countries in europe. the line connects the capital, tashkent to samarkand & bukhara, both renowned rest stops for weary travelers on the ancient silk road. while it would have taken months in the past to traverse this nation, today, it can all be done in a matter of hours.
known for its soviet architecture, it's a world away from the rest of the country. with its high-rises, vast avenues & brutalist architecture, it could not be more different from the rest of the country where islamic culture & heritage has shaped the population centers.
as i had less than 24h in the city, i headed out to explore what until recently was definitively off-limits to photographers, the now world-renowned metro stations; these vast stations that double as bomb shelters all have a unique theme. from cosmonauts to islamic architecture, you can spend the whole day exploring on a single ticket that costs less than 20 cents.
after spending a few hours shooting underground, it was time for a coffee in nonother than b&b's coffee house, known for its excellent coffee & cakes, an awesome place to do a little people-watching on the terrace.
speeding through the country on the HSR at over 180kph, i watched as the landscape turned from vibrant green to hues of yellow & orange as the temperature started to rise & the land became more desert-like.
samarkand, the country's cultural capital with impressive complexes such as the remarkable registan plaza bordered by 3 ornate, majolica-covered madrassas dating to the 15th century is a highlight. the intricately designed majolica appears to rise out of the scorched landscape in an explosion of color.
its not until you start exploring the interiors of the plaza that you can truly appreciate the level of craftsmanship & creativity that went into the decoration of the vast domed interiors where scholars once roamed. head to the plaza at sunset when the sun's golden rays hit the majolica-covered entrances, creating what has to be one of the best views in the city.
the shah-i-zinda ensemble, an ornately decorated ancient mosaic-tiled mausoleum, may seem weird to visit, but this cemetery of sought is surprisingly one of the highlights on the tourist trail. these colorful tombs are colossal & had no expense spared in their construction; the level of detail is genuinely awe-inspiring.
once again i found myself back on the tracks heading deeper into the heartland of the country. the ancient city of bukhara, known for islamic theology, culture & craftsmanship, gave me an incredible insight into why this place was a haven along the silk road.
arriving in the early morning & after tossing my bags in the room, i decided to head out before the mid-day sun hit here; the temperatures reach 30°c in june & much higher in july & august. the colossal kalon mosque complex with its elaborately carved minorai is the main attraction to visit in the old town; it's a magical place to visit in the morning & even more so in the evening when it's beautifully illuminated.
after inquiring about the best place in town for lunch with my host family, they told me without hesitation about the plov restaurant. the name refers to one of the national dishes of the nation, plov. a rice pilaf made with meat, carrots & spices, it's absolutely delicious. what's special about this place is that they are only open for 3 hours per day for lunch, making only one batch, and when it's gone, they close.
while exploring the streets of the old town, you are sure to come across traditional craftsmen specializing in woodcarving, an age-old tradition in the region. the elaborate designs they create are mind-boggling; some of the pieces take years to complete.
uzbekistan has only recently opened up to mass tourists through their visa-free or online visa system, making it super easy for most nationalities to visit. i was astounded by the advancements this nation has made after i heard stories from fellow travelers of the difficulties of traveling here, i'm glad to say it has changed for the better.
the country is super safe for tourists & independent travelers, transportation on the HSR is a revelation & the people are some of the friendliest i have ever come across. it is still in its tourism infancy, but i expect an explosion in the coming years.
this is a destination for those seeking cultural immersion as the sheer amount of history here is incalculable. the story of the silk road has rightly been brought back to life in uzbekistan.
afrosiyob - the high speed train
as my primary form of transport in the country, i found the HSR system outstanding, but there are a few quirks that you should know about before embarking on your journey to samarkand & bukhara.
you can, in fact, book the tickets online before you arrive in uzbekistan & as i realized, it is necessary to do so as the connections get booked weeks in advance.
many issues are reported booking tickets, as when you sign up for an account, you never receive the confirmation email. the workaround is the use the link above & log in with telegram (a messaging app). once this is done, you can book & download the tickets directly with a foreign visa or mastercard.
while all classes are clean & comfortable, i would try out business or first class as they are super cheap compared to western prices.
how to get there & costs...
i flew with turkish airlines direct from istanbul. tashkent is well served by international airlines & has direct connections to the USA & europe.
as mentioned, the best way to explore the country is by HSR. in the city the (yandex go app) is the local version of uber.
luxury hotels are thin on the ground, but they have excellent 3* & 4* properties. those of you that are a little more adventurous try out a homestay as i did at dervish in bukhara.
this is one of the cheapest countries in the world, i would budget approximately ($1,000) for a one-week trip for two if staying in a hotel. those on a budget staying at homestays you can easily travel for ($500) a week.
- if you travel often get yourself a curve card. it's the best travel card around, i have saved thousands of $$$ using it. get a free card & $/€/£5 in credit here.
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country travel tips
atm: most banks offer withdrawals for ($15). don't accept conversion, take USD.
sim card: beenline 60GB is ($9) for 30 days. got an e-sim enabled phone, try airalo.
transport: train & yandex taxi are the best ways to get around.
taxi: uber? use promo: carlm5078ue for free ride.
accommodation: get ($20) off your first booking.com reservation here