Next up in our Globetrotting series...
Not top of your list? Well, if you’re looking to top up your tan and watch beachy sunsets with cocktails, you’re probably right. But if a journey to the ancient beating heart of the Silk Road, via three enchanting cities, exquisite craft workshops and exceptional people watching sounds up your street, read on. You’ll also get niche traveller points. Less than 1000 Britons go each year – the same number that visit Armenia, and 9 million fewer than Spain.
1 – Don’t go for the food; it’s VERY limited – you’ll have a dill-based salad, the romantically-named national dish, Plov (oily rice with sparse pieces of meat), and vegetable soup for every meal.
2 – Do take a copy of Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: an essential read while you're there.
QUICK HISTORY LESSON
Uzbekistan was the beating heart of the Silk Road from 9th to the 17th Century. It became part of the Russian Empire in the 18th Century, and the Soviet Union in the 19th. Since 1991, it has been an independent authoritarian state.
Historical Uzbekistan is the home of some global VIPs: the father of Algebra, the guy who is responsible for much of our current understanding of the solar system, Al Biruni, whose medical studies still inform much of pharmacology today, and Amir Timur, whose architectural style (which spread like wildfire) is responsible for many of the world’s most visited buildings. The Uzbeks were clever people, living in the richest, most advanced cities in the world.
Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand: the shiniest of the Silk Road Cities. All three boast huge, beautiful madrassas, towering minarets, great dwarfing palaces and harems, built in carved sandstone and brought to life with dazzling turquoise tiles. They are exquisite in their scale and splendour, and bear all the hallmarks of a rich exchange of culture, academia and trade.
The Craft: Uzbekistan is a crafting Mecca. You’ll come back with piles of suzanis, silk coats, embroidered hats, ceramics, woodwork and hand-crafted knives (take an empty suitcase). In remote desert-side dwellings you’ll find suzanis being worked on by entire families, sitting around piles of silk thread which they have dyed themselves, and the smell of onion skins on the boil for the next batch of yellow. Look behind tiny madrassa doors and you’ll find vast ceramic plates being meticulously hand-painted, and watch cocoons become silk thread, and be woven into Ikat fabrics.
The People Watching: Sanjar, our guide, was shaped like a grenade, had four gold front teeth and totally incongruous, incredibly smart swede loafers. Sergey, the driver, had a scalped head, leather jacket, tracksuit and a full set of gold gnashers. The full-length velour dress and headscarf is a popular look for women over 35, while younger women opt for tight-dress, heels and dyed red/black hair. Both are extraordinary, and topped off with the signature shiny golden smile. Gold teeth are very normal all over Uzbekistan. Banks are unreliable, and the currency fluctuates daily, so it's much safer to keep your money in your mouth. When your daughter gets married you knock out a tooth and make her a wedding ring - easy! /...bizarre...!
Stasis: sadly, any development was put on pause about 100 years ago. The Soviet era stripped the country of its soul, its riches, any discernible development and its life-giving lake (read about the Aral Sea – this is a complete tragedy). Large parts of the countryside are straight out of Chekhov; the roads through the endless Steppe are potholed, and lined with half-constructed, abandoned buildings. Farming is manual, petrol stations deserted and banks unused. The backstreets of Bukhara feel like Baghdad, its arrow streets and creaking suspended gas pipes a playground for children kicking around in the rubble while women huddle on doorsteps, and men in tracksuits push old prams around containing their wares. In the Ferghana Valley in the east, we heard stories of guns being left on the doorsteps of potential young terrorist recruits. These parts are super sinister, and feel a world away from the splendour of the Silk Road.
Isolation: institutionalised brainwash is rife. Our guide in the east met his wife for the second time on his wedding day and divorced her after six months for not producing a child. He has never drunk a drop, thinks social media is reprehensible, and only uses Uzbek products, as they are the best in the world (he has an UzPhone, and eats UzYoghurt for breakfast). He is the perfect product of the State, and completely mentally isolated from the rest of the planet.
Oh, and really truly terrible food. Which is confusing when some of the most heavily traded and valuable goods sold on the Silk Road were spices. They are severely lacking at the heart of their original trade route.
It certainly makes for a fascinating trip: three enchanting Silk Road cities, bursting with history and beautifully restored; two really quite unmemorable cities, one (Ferghana), which I hope never to return to; terrible food; a long-overdue crash-course in the history of the world through The Silk Roads; a more diverse selection of faces than I would ever have imagined (the population have Russian, Korean and Tatar roots); more tracksuits than the rest of the world put together; the gold teeth thing; tired hotels; creepy pram pushing; incredible shopping; mind-blowing craft-skills; a level of brainwash that I’ve rarely witnessed, and State control which must be close to the situation in North Korea.
It sure isn’t your average holiday, but it will give you something to talk about for a long, long time.