With Afghanistan off-limits, a paranoid Turkmenistan and visitors from Tajikistan mostly heading straight for Samarkand, the southern regions of Qashqadaryo and Surkhandarya see few visitors. Those who do make it this far can relish solitary ancient history sites and get a taste of real Uzbek village culture, something 95% of tourists to Uzbekistan do not get to experience.
Visiting Qashqadaryo (new Uzbek spelling) and Surkhandarya (keeping the old spelling here for the moment) is not as difficult as it once was. Getting around by bus, train and shared taxi is a cinch, and only for the outmost corners do you still need a special permit.
If ancient history is your hobby-horse, you have to start at Termez. The archaeological wealth of the area is great, with sites relating the story of Greek legionnaires, Buddhist monks, Arab and Mongol invaders and a profusion of cosmopolitan traders and wandering men of wisdom. Muslim builders of medieval times have left architectural jewels that almost rival anything you can see elsewhere in the country – without another tourist in sight.
Shahrisabz & Qarshi
The seat of power of Tamerlane, Shahrisabz lost its UNESCO status after the town got bulldozed in 2015 in an effort to touristify the place. With this in mind, you can still enjoy visiting the main monuments for their architectural and historical qualities, in their own right or as a stop-over on the way to Termez. Don’t forget to have a look at the embroidered textiles for sale: they are the best in the country.
Qarshi isn’t a highlight if we are honest. Nice hotels if you need to stop for the night, but really, even for slow travelers: nothing to see. The surroundings offer enough interest for a day trip for those who cannot get enough of Sufi shrines.
Landscapes and village culture
North of Termez, the baked landscape twists and contorts itself into a mesmerising collage of canyons, cliffs, grottoes, buttes, mesas, peaks and rubble, all rendered in the tawny, inimitable hues of the desert. Sparsely populated Surkhandarya feels a world apart from the rest of Uzbekistan.
Off the highway, transport is more likely to be by donkey than by vehicle, and long mountain walks might lead you through villages that have little contact with the outside world. Temporary bazaars erupt seemingly out of nowhere, blanketing the desert in a pulsating quilt of colour before disappearing. Houses blend seamlessly with the earth from which they were fashioned.
The buff and beige of the desert turns to a verdant surprise in the higher reaches of the Gissar mountains close to the Tajik border. Travelers with a zest for exploration will enjoy themselves here.
Denau, Boysun and Katta Langar provide an entry into this underappreciated part of Uzbekistan.
Most of Uzbekistan is easily transversed by public transport. The same is true for the South, but all the interesting sights are located out of city or town centers. Thus, it makes sense to have your own transport, or to set aside a small budget for a driver to ferry you around.
If you do not speak Russian or Uzbek, communication will be limited: a guide who speaks your language and knows where to go is an extra asset if you can spare the money.
The area is best avoided during summer months, when the heat is murderous.
You might be headed to Denau, where you can cross the border into Tajikistan. From the border, it isn’t far to Dushanbe, in the heart of the Karotegin region. If not, return to the rest of Uzbekistan or continue to Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan.