Uzbekistan Trip review by Ihab Zaki
After a series of flights, with tight connections in several airports, I finally arrived back to Detroit enriched with beautiful memories of my 10-day visit to Uzbekistan. I accompanied a cheerful group of 16 travelers, many of whom are loyal alumni that have taken anywhere from 1 to 5 trips with us. It was a pleasure to meet them in person and share this thrilling adventure with them. I would rank our local guide “Otabek” as one of the TOP guides whom we work with. His depth of knowledge, his witty sense of humor and his leading skills ensured that our trip would be a smooth, flawless and rewarding one. Combined with the joyful attitude of our travelers, and a country rich in magnificent monuments and inhabited by hospitable people we had the recipe for a very successful tour!
I never expected the architecture of Uzbekistan’s beautiful cities like Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand to move me so much. In their grandeur they rival the majestic buildings and edifices of Iran. The Great Silk Road that connected China and Rome played a very important role in the development of this area. The amalgam of cultures, ethnic tribes and religions make the modern Uzbeks a very eclectic mix and they all share a wonderful sense of hospitality to visitors of their land. Of course the dominant figure in the country is the controversial Timurlane, or Timur Lank or Amir Timur who from his state capital of Samarkand, built a vast empire and erected fantastic monuments.
The Uzbek people are very colorful, displaying a wide variety of local dresses and head gear. One of their very prominent characteristics is the wide spread of gold teeth, a remnant of Soviet occupation and a way of hording their wealth! Those teeth greeted us everywhere with broad smiles and constant offers to have our pictures taken with them or them taking our photos. Body and sign language came in handy and was quite useful in a country where English is not widely spoken. The majority of the population speaks Uzbek, or Russian or one of the local Central Asian languages such as Tajik and Turkic.
Everywhere we went, we saw beautiful crafts and alluring souvenirs. We often wondered how they compete in a country that does not benefit from an overflow of tourists. The abundance of crafts: ceramics, textiles, glassware, carpets, musical instruments, metal ware, pottery, antiques and wood carvings can discombobulate the savviest of travelers. I just could NOT make the leap and start shopping until we were about 2 days from departing when I finally knew what I was looking for and what would be a fair price to pay. I brought my wife an exquisite collection of hand-made silver necklaces and pendants, some made in India, some local and some from as far as Afghanistan. I was also lucky to fall in love with a small Azerbaijani –designed rug woven in Afghanistan! The one thing that travelers must be aware of is that customs are very strict about any items that even remotely look old/antique. I learned my lesson the hard way and now I have a beautiful brass pot inlaid with semi precious stones kept hostage in the country (Otabek kindly agreed to keep it indefinitely for me until I can figure out a way to liberate it from Uzbekistan!
Uzbekistan is endowed with a stunning array of UNESCO World HERITAGE sites. I connected with my group in the fabled walled-city of Khiva. What a treat to start my trip in this well-kept, ancient city as I was still a bit jet lagged and strolling its quasi-empty alleys and streets acted as a restorative. It is well deserving of its moniker “Open Air Museum” with its cluster of beautifully decorated and colorfully-tiled mosques, domes, mausoleums, madrasas and palaces! What a stunning introduction to Uzbekistan! That evening, I shared with my group a delightful dinner at a private home where our hosts prepared for us many tantalizing local dishes, starting with an array of tasty mezes such as eggplant, cucumber salad, beets and carrots as well as a hearty soup. Our small and beautifully decorated hotel was within walking distance of the city walls which allowed us to have many strolls back and forth and tour members have enjoyed the souvenir-hunting experiences.
Our next stop was a full day’s drive through an arid desert to the Noble city of Bukhara. Once devastated by the Mongols and Ghenkis Khan’s armies, it revived again, even more beautiful. Laying in a fertile oasis on the Great Silk Road, Bukhara was the center of science and culture. Our small hotel was blessed with a spectacular view from its courtyard overlooking the impressive Poi Kalyan Minaret and the adjacent blue dome of one of the Madrasas!
Having been at one time a capital city, Bukhara was famous not only for its mosques and madrasas but also for its uniquely shaped caravanserais, and multidomed markets and baths. They are still well-preserved and still used as shopping malls, with each set of domes specializing in a particular trade: dome of jewelers, dome of hat sellers and dome of money exchangers. Bukhara is the place to purchase a rug or carpet or the indigenous and famous embroidered suzannis (used as wall hangings, floor pieces, table clothes or bed covers). One of the beautiful characteristics of this city is its inner heart, which is situated around a man-made pool surrounded by restaurants and cafes. A place where the locals gather for socializing and escaping the heat of their un-air conditioned apartments. One evening some of us had a very touching experience when we visited the Jewish quarter and found one of the only 2 remaining synagogues open. As we walked in we knew we were witnessing what is left of a disappearing population (500 remain in Bukhara). The caretaker offered to show us around and he took us to the attached school to see some of the classrooms and then showed us some priceless ancient Torahs.
A few days later our journey took us to Samarkand, Amir Timur’s “Heart of The Silk Road”. A contemporary of Rome, Athens and Babylon, Samarkand celebrated its 2500 years’ anniversary. It should be stated that its existing grandeur is owed to Amir Timur and the Timurid Dynasty which made it the capital of a powerful state. The legendary heart of the city is the architectural gem called Registan Square. The square has been the center of trade and public life for the city since ancient times. Dominated by a grouping of three colossal madrasas the ensemble is a unique world jewel. Laying our eyes on the square touched all of us as we all stood in awe. It reminded me of my first sight of the main square of Isfahan! It just took my breath away! We then spent a full day touring the many monuments of the city and one afternoon, we headed to the neighboring state of Tajikistan (only an hour and a half drive) to visit the remaining layers of the ancient city of Penjikent. We were all disappointed that the Tajik authorities did not put any stamps in our passports and they did not even care to view our passports when leaving their country to go back to Samarkand! That evening we attended a very spectacular and almost mystical Sound & Light show at Registan Square.
On many occasions we were so pleased to have our meals in private houses, which not only were some of the best meals we had, but it allowed us a behind-the-scenes view of how Uzbek homes looked like on the inside. Typically with a courtyard, a covered Iwan –or open-air roofed terrace, and the living spaces on the upstairs, so as to be away from the eyes of visitors. We enjoyed many wonderful meals, accompanied by a cold Russian beer and some of the most delicious fruits I have ever eaten, especially their peaches, apricots, cherries, melons and tiny apples! One day we even had a treat when we went for a wine tasting event where we sampled a good variety of Uzbek wines, let me tell you, some were awarded in International competitions!
Well, under the space limitation and trying not to bore you my esteemed readers, I will stop here and will not expand further on my experience, which you can probably tell by now has been an unforgettable one. I almost want to go into every detail and reflect on each and every wonderful moment and experience I had. There is no way I can fairly convey my thrill and enchantment with Uzbekistan and I highly urge you to visit this intriguing country to savor all these beautiful things for yourself. We hope that you will take the opportunity to join us and create your own memorable moments.