Since the Arab Spring there has been a surge of interest in Uzbekistan. Kate Kellaway is captivated by its exoticism but ponders whether she should be there at all.
Uzbekistan – a country that was barely on the tourist map until recently – has come into focus. When I tell people I have been there, it seems everyone knows someone who was bowled over by it. Uzbekistan takes hold of the imagination and does not let go.
Tour operators say there has been a huge surge of interest in the country since the Arab Spring, that it has been seen as an alternative to countries such as Libya and Syria. Cox & Kings saw a 163% increase in passengers travelling to Uzbekistan in 2012 over 2011, and reports a 30% increase in bookings for its 2013 group trip.
Uzbekistan has the extra pull of being about as far from the familiar as it is possible to go: an unknown, exotic, fabled destination. My head is full of it: the astounding mosques, the toothsome bread and the smiling faces with gold-capped teeth. Yet when people ask what Uzbekistan is like, the truthful answer is: I don’t know where to start.
I have spent a week in Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva in the company of Tahir, a benign, obliging, hard-working guide determined that we, a small group of British tourists, should find Uzbekistan uncontroversial.
President Karimov? «He is doing a very good job.»
Freedom of the press? «They say what they like.»
And could he explain why, after gaining independence from Soviet rule in 1991, Uzbekistan chose brutish Tamerlane, a 14th-century despot, as its post-communist figurehead? At least here Tahir hit upon a convincing answer: «We needed a hero.»
Our guide’s wish not to be drawn on politics is understandable – and tantalising. But by one of life’s serendipitous coincidence, Hamid Ismailov, head of the BBC World Service’s Central Asian service, is from Uzbekistan and happens to be my neighbour. I take my questions to him.
«How do I explain?» he says. «Uzbekistan is, in a sense, an island like Britain, but a landlocked island, surrounded by desert and mountains. You can’t escape from it – or for centuries you couldn’t. Its psychology is not of this century. It is about survivalism.»
«No, the more people who go, the better – they will know it from the inside.» After all, as he remarks, the country is about more than the man in charge. He is delighted when I marvel at Uzbek hospitality and tells me Uzbekistan has a proverb: «The visitor is dearer than your father.»
Tashkent felt unreal from the off: hot sun on our backs, crunchy autumn leaves underfoot – like an invented season. We checked into the Tashkent Palace Hotel – swanky, lugubrious, comfortable. In 1966, there was an earthquake in Tashkent, described by a traveller at the time as like riding «a camel that has gone berserk». It destroyed much of the old city and, although tash means stone and kent settlement, post-earthquake concrete prevails.
It is one of the largest cities in Central Asia with a population of 3 million, yet Tashkent seemed eerily empty – aside from its brides. They come in convoy to be photographed in front of declamatory public art: an earthquake memorial makes a particularly curious backdrop for newlyweds. A second world war memorial honouring 450,000 fallen Uzbeks comprised a statue of a sad mother and an eternal flame. The mother was grotesque, mannish with a resigned look – and another magnet for brides. Everywhere, the trunks of Tashkent’s trees are painted white – as if they’re wearing socks.
We visited Tashkent’s magnificent metro – its art deco lights like arum lilies. We called in on the home of a Tsarist diplomat (it’s now a museum). Above the doorway is a stirring line from Omar Khayyam: «The world is a great caravanserai with two doors: one entrance and one exit. Every day new guests come to the caravanserai.»
«Travellers’ bread,» he explained. Every region in Uzbekistan has its own bread. He poured green tea (it flows incessantly in Uzbekistan) and talked about Tamerlane’s passion for Samarkand bread and, as the sun went down, he turned on lights in his magical courtyard garden with a miniature bridge, river and pomegranate tree. He showed us the exquisite, experimental saucers he makes. And, as we left, he told us that each of us has our own bird: he hoped we would fly well.
I love this idea of one’s own bird. But our birds were upstaged the following day by an immaculate bullet train to Samarkand. This was not the romantic transport I had in mind but I whispered «Non-stop to Samarkand» to myself with a thrill – dropped names do not come any sweeter.
On the table in front of me was a dainty box of Uzbekistan Railways Kleenex. Through the windows, I watched men digging a grave, black cows, bald hillsides. The train, I reflected, must seem an expensive rebuke to those it leaves behind.
We checked in to the Hotel Grand, Samarkand, which had a garrulous caged canary in reception. Applied to Samarkand itself, «grand» is an understatement. The scale of the Registan – its vast square – can only be understood by pacing the polished stones, tilting one’s head upwards towards the minarets. Sand, turquoise, gold – colours of desert and sky. The Bibi Khanum mosque is one of the largest in the world. The detail, within colossal contours, is extraordinary. You cannot grasp it, nor was it intended you should. An inscription on a minaret sums it up: «The skilled acrobat of thought climbing the rope of imagination will never reach the summits of its forbidden minarets.»
And Tamerlane rules at every turn. We learned he died of flu – a somehow absurd ending for a superman. We visited the mausoleum of his grandson, Uleg Beg, who plotted the co-ordinates of 1,018 stars and made this refreshingly heretical pronouncement: «Religions dissipate like fog, kingdoms vanish, but the works of scientists remain for eternity.»
We were also allowed into a Jewish synagogue on a refreshingly human scale. In old Samarkand, there are only 300 Jews left. Samarkand also boasts a paradise of a market, to which its famous shiny round bread is transported on unwieldy bicycles, and sold by people whose smiles tell of resplendent dentistry.
Restoration has been the saving and unmaking of Samarkand. During and after the Soviet era, Uzbekistan’s historic monuments have been comprehensively restored – there’s not a chipped mosaic in sight. It seems a reconstruction of history and a flight from it. For the tourist, it is hard to know what one is looking at, what to believe, how to tell past from present.
At dusk, we walked in Afrosiab, or «death city», the blighted, undulating terrain which was the ancient core of Samarkand, where Genghis Khan did his worst. The land was considered so unlucky that Tamerlane decided not to build on it. That night, we banqueted at a private house on tart radishes, beetroot with sour sauce, meat soup, pumpkin pancakes, sponge cake. The outstanding national dish is plov– sizzling lamb, rice and apricots, to which whole restaurants are dedicated. I’m a plov convert, but this is no diet for delicate constitutions.
Next stop was the ancient city of Bukhara but we paused en route in Botali, a village in the middle of nowhere. The unplanned stop was a response by our guide to a question about ordinary people’s lives in Uzbekistan. We strolled into a random backyard, where he explained that we were tourists. A Scottish woman in our party wondered what would happen were Uzbek tourists to turn up unannounced on a UK doorstep, demanding a taste of British culture.
Here, the response could not have been warmer. In one house, a silver chest was unpacked so we could view a bride’s outfits; in a second, we were invited to a wedding party and sat cross-legged with men in black fur hats and shared apricot kernels, soup, flatbread. We were told one of the brides met her husband when he rang her by mistake. She said, «wrong number», and he, attracted by her voice, said: «Wait – who are you?» They were married 27 days later. It seems fitting that we turned up like cold callers and were treated like wedding guests.
Bukhara is extraordinary. Unlike Samarkand, it is alive, not a museum. Here, the temperature nosedived – it was piercingly cold but radiant. There is a mosque for every day of the year in Bukhara, including one of Uzbekistan’s most miraculous buildings: the 10th-century Ismail Samani mausoleum. The 18th-century Bolo Hauz mosque is captivatingly elegant, with 20 elm columns lining the waterside: a reflected forest.
History here felt more accessible than in Samarkand – sometimes terrifyingly so. We stood outside the Ark – there has been a fortress here for 2,000 years. It is a blank building, like an unreadable face, aggressively underdecorated as if to emphasise unholy ends. Beheadings and other ostentatiously bloody displays of violence were routine here. We considered the careers of Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly who, in the early 19th century, were publicly beheaded for «spying» – by order of paranoid Emir Nasrullah Khan – yards from where we stood.
Tahir had a way of making calamity sound upbeat: «The officers were unfortunately executed. Very bad, very sad.»
The old silk road leads beyond Bukhara. It took eight hours to drive, through freezing desert, to Khiva, a 14th-century heritage site. It is like a stunning stage set – in which one is obliged to be the director and people it with a convincing cast. In a ravishing (in every sense) 1830s harem, with seductive blue columns and intricate tiles, I tried to imagine the sultan and his four wives and, opposite them, 40 concubines lounging on balconies.
The weather changed again: icy rain. And the brides were back, with downcast faces and yards of stiff net, with uncomfortably suited grooms escorting them. Street traders waited like fishermen for tourists – our party, out of season, their sudden shoal. The shopping was light-hearted – for fur hats, teapots, Byronic slippers, woollen slipper-socks. I had been taken aback to read in my erudite guide book, Uzbekistan: The Golden Road to Samarkand, by Calum MacLeod and Bradley Mayhew, that number 14 in their list of the 20 best things to do in Uzbekistan was buy a shaggy, sheep-scented Turkmen hat in Khiva.
I felt further from home in Uzbekistan than I have felt anywhere (and was encouraged to read Colin Thubron owning up to a comparable fascinated displacement in Uzbekistan in The Lost Heart of Asia). It was not a comfortable feeling – but it was memorable. Yet all week, unease went hand-in-hand with gaiety. And I have returned with a recipe for plov, and the dried apricots to make it happen, an antique teapot that looks likely to have a genie inside it, and, as instructed, a magnificent, morale-boosting Turkmen hat. It smells strongly of sheep, and my children have forbidden me to wear it. I smile, and think of Uzbekistan, as I put it on.
Choose the destination and your unforgettable trip around Uzbekistan.