Called “The Pearls of the Silk Road” by unimaginative copywriters, the medieval monuments of Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are the main reason tourists visit Uzbekistan. It’s a bit of a misnomer though, since the Silk Road itself had ceased to exist centuries before these cities rose to prominence.
But that’s just nit-picking. Together, these 4 cities represent medieval Islamic architecture at its finest. Only the brick magic of Esfahan surpasses them.
Who is it for? How to plan a trip?
The Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan are a destination for the culture maven. Older tourists, with or without a package tour, enjoy it most. Shoppers, photographers and sightseers with a proclivity for architecture, crafts and history – you’re gonna love it.
Backpackers, on the other hand, are sometimes disappointed. They find these cities too neatly restored, too busy with tourists. Especially backpackers who have just come from Iran are likely to suffer from madrassah fatigue.
Samarkand and Bukhara are the 2 must-sees. Bukhara is more lively and less scrubbed out than Samarkand, and it has more monuments in general. However long you are staying in either, make sure you stay a day longer in Bukhara than in Samarkand.
Khiva is tiny: it takes most people 2-3 hours to see everything in the old town. It is also far away from the other cities. If you are planning to see more of Qaraqalpaqstan or are heading down to Konye-Urgench in Turkmenistan, include it in your itinerary, definitely. But if you are planning to travel all the way west just to see Khiva, make sure you have a big interest in what is on offer to avoid disappointment.
Tashkent has something to offer to every type of tourist, but, like many big cities, her dwarfing proportions can be off-putting. It’s a city that needs a lot of time before she is willing to reveal her charms. I advise to either take that time, or move on quickly.
Levelled to the ground by a disastrous earthquake in 1966, Tashkent, Central Asia’s most populous city, is a monument to Soviet ideology as it stood in the 1960s. It is a metropolis missing none of the trappings of modern life, only dunked in a greasy Oriental-Soviet sauce.
Tashkent has some old mosques too, but its musea won’t bowl you over. This is a city for the Sovietophile, the anthropologist of the 21st century, the dedicated flaneur who sees beauty where others see concrete.
Samarkand: the name evokes all the tropes and romance of orientalism. However, these days Samarkand is a modern city of half a million. A clear border has been forced onto the city, dividing the park landscape of the museum city (for visitors), from the mahalla neighbourhoods hidden behind high walls (for locals). The Registan and Shah-i-Zinda are still stunning, but its surroundings are sterile.
For visitors uncomfortable with mere sightseeing, Samarkand offers little-known sparklers like the paper museum, the regional studies museum and the Hovrenko wine factory.
Alternatively known as the Eastern Dome of Islam, Bukhara was always known as a place of learning. Even before the arrival of Islam, Buddhist monasteries were teaching students here. Islam is still much-feared in Uzbekistan, and the majority of madrassahs these days have closed down or been converted to museums.
The inner city is dominated by large tour groups and the service industry catering to them, but Bukhara remains Uzbekistan’s most instantly lovable city. Despite touristification, it has retained much of its magic, best sampled on early-morning strolls to avoid the heat and the other visitors.
The isolated desert khanate of Khiva resisted Russian colonisation until 1873. Amazingly, the traditional architecture inside its walled city has remained completely intact, with some stunning examples of medieval Islamic architecture preserved. It is now a museum city preserved for tourism (new Khiva is built outside the walled city). It also serves as the spectacular decor for local wedding videos.
Off the beaten track
Shahrisabz, the seat of Tamerlane’s power, got the Samarkand treatment in 2015 and is currently still being landscaped. A yurtstay in the Kyzylkum desert and a homestay in the Nuratau mountains are the easiest ways to add some nature and interaction with locals to a trip dominated by historical sights.
If you do want more historical sights, the Golden Road to Samarkand has more, minor delights. Outdoor enthusiasts will prefer to discover the mountains above Tashkent, while urban explorers can visit the ghost town Angren.
- Ferghana Valley: Silk from Margilan & ceramics from Rishton. A traditional heartland.
- Qaraqalpaqstan: Aral Sea, Savitsky museum, and the fortresses of Khorezm.
- The South: Buddhist relics, and a village culture nestled in green uplands to escape the blazing summer heat.
Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan & Tajikistan