Uzbekistan lies astride the Silk Road, the ancient trading route between China and the West (for more details see the Silk Road in the China section). The country boasts some of the finest architectural jewels among the Silk Road countries, featuring intricate Islamic tile work, turquoise domes, minarets and preserved relics from the time when Central Asia was a centre of empire and learning. Good examples of this architecture can be found in the ancient walled city of Khiva in Urgench, the winding narrow streets of the old town of Bukhara and Samarkand, known locally as the ĎRome of the Orientí. The Ferghana Valley, surrounded by the Tian Shan and Pamir mountains, still produces silk and is well worth visiting for its friendly bazaars and landscape of cotton fields, mulberry trees and fruit orchards. Uzbektourism will arrange tours to suit taste and budget. An increasing number of Western tour companies offer packages that take travellers to Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent, with all accommodation and travel paid before leaving. Owing to the difficulties of touring independently, travellers with limited time are advised to buy a package and make use of the services of a recognised tour company.

TASHKENT : The capital lies in the valley of the River Chirchik and is the fourth-largest city in the CIS. Tashkent has always been an important international transport junction. Unfortunately, it preserves only a small proportion of its architectural past. A massive earthquake in 1966 flattened much of the old city and it was rebuilt with broad, tree-lined streets and the new buildings are of little architectural interest. The earlier buildings lie in the old town to the west of the centre. A myriad of narrow winding alleys, it stands in stark contrast to the more modern Tashkent. Of interest among the older buildings are the 16th-century Kukeldash Madrasa, which is being restored as a museum, and the Kaffali-Shash Mausoleum. Many of the Islamic sites in Tashkent are not open to non-Muslims, and visitors should always ask permission before entering a mosque or other religious building.

Tashkent houses many museums of Uzbek and pre-Uzbek culture. These include the State Art Museum, which houses a collection of paintings, ceramics and the Bukharan royal robes. The Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts exhibits embroidered wall hangings and reproduction antique jewellery. As important historical figures, such as Amir Timur - better known as Tamerlane in the West - are being given greater prominence, the exhibits and perspective of the museums are also changing.

SAMARKAND : Samarkand is the site of Alexander the Greatís slaying of his friend Cleitos, the pivot of the Silk Road and the city transformed by Timur in the 14th century into one of the worldís greatest capitals. Founded over 5000 years ago, the city flourished until the 16th century before the sea routes to China and the rest of the East diminished its importance as a trading centre. Much of its past glory survives or has been restored. The centre of the historical town is the Registan Square, where three huge madrasas (Islamic seminaries) - including Shir-Dor and Tillya-Kari - built between the 15th and 17th centuries, dominate the area. Decorated with blue tiles and intricate mosaics, they give some idea of the grandeur that marked Samarkand in its heyday.

The Bibi Khanym Mosque, not far from the Registan, is testimony to Timurís love for his wife. Now it is a pale shadow of its former self, having been partly destroyed in the 1897 earthquake, and seems permanently under repair. However, it is still possible to see the breadth of vision of the man who conquered so much of central and south Asia.
Timur himself is buried in the Gur Emir. On the ground floor, under the massive cupola, lie the ceremonial graves of Timur and his descendants. The stone that commemorates Timur is reputed to be the largest chunk of Nephrite (jade) in the world. The actual bodies are situated in the basement, which unfortunately is not open to the public.

The Shah-i-Zinda is a collection of the graves of some of Samarkandís dignitaries. The oldest date from the 14th century as Samarkand was starting to recover from the depredations of the Mongol hordes of the 13th century. Other sites of interest in Samarkand include the Observatory of Ulug Beg, Timurís grandson, which was the most advanced astronomical observatory of its day. There is also the Afrasiab Museum, not far from the observatory, containing a frieze dating from the 6th century which shows a train of gifts for the Sogdian ruler of the day.

BUKHARA : West of Samarkand, Bukhara was once a centre of learning renowned throughout the Islamic world. It was here that the great Sheikh Bahautdin Nakshbandi lived. He was a central figure in the development of the mystical Sufi approach to philosophy, religion and Islam. In Bukhara, there are more than 350 mosques and 100 religious colleges. Its fortunes waxed and waned through succeeding empires until it became one of the great Central Asian khanates in the 17th century.

The centre of historical Bukhara is the Shakristan, which contains the Ark, or palace complex of the Emirs. Much of this was destroyed by fire in the 1920s, but the surviving gatehouse gives an impression of what the whole must have been like. Near the gatehouse is the Zindan or jail of the Emirs, which has a display of some of the torture methods employed by the Emirs against their enemies.

Not far from the Ark, the 47m- (154ft-) high Kalyan Minaret, or tower of death, was built in 1127 and, with the Ishmael Samani Mausoleum, is almost the only structure to have survived the Mongols. It was from here that convicted criminals were thrown to their deaths. Other sites of interest in Bukhara include the Kalyan Mosque, which is open to non - Muslims, the Ulug Beg Madrasa - the oldest in Central Asia - and, opposite, the Abdul Aziz Madrasa. Bukhara, with the narrow, twisting alleyways of its old quarter, is full of architectural gems.

Khiva, northeast of Bukhara, is near the modern and uninteresting city of Urgench. Khiva is younger and better preserved than either Samarkand or Bukhara. The city still lies within the original city walls, and has changed little since the 18th century. Part of its attraction is its completeness; although it has been turned into a museum town and is hardly inhabited, it is possible to imagine what it was like in its prime when it was a market for captured Russian and Persian slaves.

The Art Gallery in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, in the west of the country, has the best collection of Russian avant-garde art outside St Petersburg. The Chatkalsky Reserve in the western Tian-Shan is a narrow unspoilt gorge and contains snow tigers, the rare Tian-Shan grey bear and the Berkut eagle.

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Information provided by Uzbekistan Tourism Board.


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