Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is not a place that you hear about often in the travel world. I was first introduced to the unique country in 2015 while thumbing through KLM’s airline magazine on a flight. There was a story on Uzbekistan and I was instantly fascinated with the Islamic architecture and former Silk Road cities of the former Soviet republic. When I returned to the US, I started doing more research on the country and contacted a tour operator, Advantour, about arranging a trip. Fast forward a year later and I had chosen an eight day tour that covered Tashkent, Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand. A friend was able to join me for the trip and provided excellent companionship.

Day 0: fly from Moscow to Tashkent, late arrival, overnight in Tashkent
Day 1: half day to explore Tashkent and late afternoon flight to Khiva, overnight in Khiva
Day 2: full day to explore Khiva, evening flight to Bukhara, overnight in Bukhara
Day 3: visit sights in center of Bukhara, overnight in Bukhara
Day 4: visit sights in outer areas of Bukhara, overnight in Bukhara
Day 5: train to Samarkand, visit Registan and Shakhi-Zinda necropolis, overnight in Samarkand
Day 6: visit outer areas of Samarkand, free afternoon, overnight in Samarkand
Day 7: train to Tashkent, free afternoon in Tashkent, overnight in Tashkent
Day 8: early morning flight to Berlin via Moscow

DAY 1: Tashkent

We started the day at the office of Advantour finalizing payments and meeting our guide for the day. We had a few different guides on the trip. Our first stop was Khazrati Imam Complex, the religious center of Tashkent. The site contains madrasahs, mosque, mausoleum, and other buildings; some of which were built as early as the 16th century. A famous koran is also kept at the complex.

The main building of Chorsu Bazaar is covered by a large dome that reminded me of the Legion of Dome from the Superfriends cartoon I watches as a kid. Under the dome are the meats, cheeses, and nuts.  The fruits and vegetables markets are located in an open-air area behind the main building. Nearby is the Tashkent Circus, a bizarre UFO shaped building that houses an actual circus.

We took the Tashkent Metro to Alisher Navoi, where we transferred to another line to Mustaqillik Maydoni station. All the stations were beautifully decorated but no photos are allowed. (Update – photos are now allowed in the metro). From Independence Square we took a quick walk through one of Tashkent’s many parks to Memory Square, where an eternal flame and WW2 war memorial are located. The State Museum of History of Uzbekistan is located near the Alisher Bavoi Opera building, so we visited both before heading back to our hotel. We flew to Khiva late afternoon and it was one of scariest flights I’ve ever taken, but we survived.

DAY 2: Khiva

Khiva is divided into two parts: the outer town and the inner town, Itchan Kala. The entire walled town of Itchan Kala is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Itchan Kala is very small and the entire town is a museum. From our hotel we walked around the perimeter wall to the West Gate. This was a good opportunity to see some glimpses of regular life outside the walls. Just outside the main gate is a cool tile map of the Khiva.

Just beyond the West Gate is the most famous monument in Khiva, the unfinished Kalta Minor minaret “short minaret”. The huge 95-foot minaret was only one-third finished when construction was halted. The entire minaret is covered in vivid tiles. The madrasah adjacent to the minaret has been converted to a hotel, but is worth a visit.

Opposite the main pedestrian street is the Kunya Ark citadel. The citadel formerly housed many buildings and services, but only a reception hall, a mosque, the mint, and the harem remain.  One of the access points to the city walls are through the citadel, but the walls were closed to pedestrians when we visited.  The building still provides excellent views over Khiva from its observation deck.

Directly in front of the citadel is Mohammed Rakhim Khan Madrassah that now houses a small museum. Near the Madrasah of Mukhammad Amin Khan is a pedestrian shopping street filled with restaurants and shops. We stopped briefly at a woodworker’s shop to admire the impressive skills and crafts. I also snapped a few photos of some of the various ceramics, puppets, and hats for sale.

The Mausoleum of Makhmud Pakhlavan is unique in Khiva for it large blue domes. Makhmud Pahlavan was a famous poet in the XIV century. The mausoleum was closed for renovations when I visited. On all sides of the mausoleum are tombs of others that wanted to be buried near the poet.

Islam Khoja Complex contains a mosque, a minaret, and a madrasah. The minaret is the tallest structure in Khiva at 45 meters.  It can be climbed for small fee, but I would not recommend it if you are claustrophobic. The madrasah houses a small museum of applied arts.

Juma Mosque “Friday mosque” has single hall with 215 wooden columns that support the ceiling.  The columns are from different periods and some are original. Others were taken from other locations through Central Asia, including India.

Abdullah Khan Madrassah, Madrasah Kutlug Murad-inak and Ak-Mosque form a small complex on the eastern side of the city.  We didn’t enter any of the buildings.  The courtyard has been taken over by vendors wanting direct access to visitors to Tash Hovli Palace nearby.

Tash Hovli Palace was a summer residence inside the city walls. The palace consists of three main areas that are accessed through two separate entrances: the entertainment court, the justice court, and the harem. The architecture of the harem consists of a large courtyards surrounded by five aivans (open terraces with brightly colored ceilings) and balconies.

The Dekhon Bazaar is located just outside the East Gate of Khiva. The people were very friendly and allowed us to take photos and even asked to us to pose with them in a few photos.

DAY 3: Bukhara

Bukhara is the second most famous Silk Road city in Uzbekistan after Samarkand and contains many rich architectural monuments. We had two full days to explore the city, so spent the first day visiting the sights in the historic center on foot and saved the second day for monuments that could only be reached by car. I was sick the first morning in Bukhara and missed the visit to the Ark Museum with our guide.

Lyab-i Hauz Ensemble is the historic center of Bukhara and contains a large reservoir surrounded by several monumental buildings, including Magoki Attori Mosque or “mosque in a pit”. Khanaka Nadir Divan-Beghi, is a building that was used as a residential, spiritual retreat and has a very colorful interior. On the eastern side of the Lyab-i Hauz Ensemble is Nadir Divan-begi Madrasah, most famous for the two phoenixes and human face that grace its entrance portal.

Another ensemble is formed by Ulugbek Madrasah and Abdulaziz Khan Madrasah, which are located directly across from each other. The facade of Abdulaziz Khan Madrasah is more colorful and elaborate, but only the main portal has been restored. Ulugbek Madrasah hasn’t been restored at all, but it was interesting to finally see a monument with some decay.

Bukhara was a major stop on the Silk Road and trading was very important.  Four architecturally impressive trade domes remain in the old city. The multi-domed structures look like something out of Star Wars.  Unfortunately, all of the interiors has been renovated and modernized. Toki Zargaron trading dome is the largest. In the evening, we visited a traditional hamman and afterwards went exploring, looking for smaller less famous monuments, but had little luck finding them.

Poi Kalyan Ensemble has four architectural buildings and is the symbol of Bukhara.  Kaylan Mosque and Minaret are the most famous monuments. Kaylan Mosque has a very large courtyard and serves as the Friday mosque of Bukhara. Across a square from the mosque is the Mir I Arab Madrasah.  Mir I Arab madrasah is closed to visitors, which is rare in Uzbekistan. Amir-Allimkhan Madrasah is small school adjacent to the Kaylan Minaret.  It was closed when we visited.

DAY 4: Bukhara

Our second day in Bukhara was spent mostly visiting sights outside of the historic center. 

Bolo-Khauz Complex contains the Friday mosque Bukhara’s Registan Square and houses the Friday mosque. The front of the mosque has a long wooden verandah with intricate geometric patterns on its ceiling. A large pool occupies the center of the square.

Not far from Bolo-Khauz and along the former city walls is Samanids Mausoleum. The large crypt is built of bricks that are arranged in different ways to create distinct patterns. The architectural gem is pre-Islamic and one of the oldest buildings in the city. The adjacent Samanids Recreation Park wasn’t on our itinerary, but when I saw the large ferris wheel, I knew we had to visit. I was mostly curious see what kind of Soviet era rides this park operated and I wasn’t dissappointed by the weird assortment of amusements. We also stopped by Markaziy Bazaar because we quickly learned that the markets were the best place to interact with locals and get tons of free delicious samples.

As we left Bukhara’s center, our first of four stops was the unique Chor Minor, the former gatehouse of a destroyed madrassah. The small gatehouse has four large domed minarets.

Memorial Complex of Khoja Bakhouddin Naqshbandi is an important Muslim pilgrimage shrine and considered the Mekka of Central Asian. Naqshbandi was a great Muslim theologian and is buried in the complex’s necropolis.

Sitorai Mokhi-Khosa Palace was my favorite place in Bukhara. This summer palace was initially built by the Emir of Bukhara for his wife Sitora. The site combines oriental and western style architecture and design. The colorful interiors combine heavily ornamented and geometric patterns.

Chor-Bakr Necropolis was our last stop of the day. We were running on empty, but we did appreciated the beautiful sight of ancient graves of Juibar sheikhs underneath the mulberry trees.

DAY 5: Samarkand

Gur Emir Mausoleum was our first destination in Samarkand. The site is small but the entrance portal, blue ribbed dome, and gilded interior were some of the best architecture we saw in Uzbekistan.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque was one of the largest in the Islamic world. The mosque was so gigantic that it was never finished due to its failing structural integrity. The ruins are still monumental and imposing.

Siab Bazaar is the main market in Samarkand and located next door to Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

Registan Ensemble is the grandest architecture complex in all of Uzbekistan and maybe the entire Central Asia region. It’s what I had seen on the magazine cover that sparked this entire trip. The large plaza is surrounded on three sides by beautifully restored madrasahs (schools). The scale and details of the buildings is overwhelming. We visited once during the day and returned to experience the space at night.

DAY 6: Samarkand

Shakhi-Zinda Ensemble is a necropolis that was built over eight (from 11th till 19th) centuries and includes more than twenty buildings of various styles. Most of the mausoleums are on three tiers along a long central axis corridor. Some buildings are covered in beautiful tiles in every shade of blue, while others are simple exposed bricks. The interior of the larger tombs contain domed ceilings with intricate designs. Hills surrounding the necropolis offer great panoramic views of the site and better views of the distinctive domes. The variety of architecture made this one of my favorite sites in Uzbekistan.

Tomb of Prophet Daniel and Afrosiab Museum are two separate stops on Afrosiab, an ancient settlement. The museum is dedicated to the findings from the archaeological excavations of the ancient city that was destroyed in the 13th century.

Ulugbek’s Observatory was built in the 15th century to house unique, advanced astronomical instruments.

In the evening, we walked from our hotel to Amir Temur statue, Gur Emir Mausoleum, and the Registan, to experience Samarkand at night. All the monuments were lit and the Registan was open to visit.

DAY 7: Tashkent

On our last morning in Samarkand, our official tour came to an end andwe said goodbye to our guide. From there we took the high speed train back to Tashkent. The Samarkand station is a good example of Soviet style architecture. We spent our last afternoon exploring central Tashkent.

Our hotel was located a few hundred feet from Amir Temur Square, where Amir Temur museum and the famous Hotel Uzbekistan is located. On the way there we passed the Turkiston concert hall.


FLIGHTS
Aeroflot (economy): SVO-TAS
I paid cash for this four hour flight from Moscow to Tashkent. Surprisingly, Aeroflot operated a large body Boeing 777-300 on the route, so it was quite comfortable.

Uzbekistan Airways (economy): TAS-UGC, UGC-BUK
These two flights could not have been more different. The first flight was on an Ilyushin Il-114 (Russian airplane) during inclement weather and it was a very bad flight. My travel partner and I barely spoke during the flight, because we were both terrified we were going to die. The second flight was on a new Airbus A320 and was smooth and pleasant.


HOTELS
Hyatt Regency Tashkent – luxury – 4k Hyatt points plus $55
This is the nicest hotel in Tashkent and the newest, opening only a few months before we arrived. The rooms were nicely decorated but I was more impressed with the fitness facilities, pool and spa, and breakfast buffet. The hotel is also a quick walk to Amir Temur Square, although exiting the hotel fortress requires additional time.
Recommend: Yes

Asia Khiva – moderate – part of tour package
Good location just outside the historic center walls
Recommend: Yes

Omar Khayyam, Bukhara – moderate – part of tour package
Basic and comfortable room in a good location near main attractions.
Recommend: Yes

Grand Samarkand Superior – moderate – part of tour package
Good hotel but a bit far from the Registan and main sights.
Recommend: Yes


TRANSPORTATION
Since we had an organize tour, we were mostly driven around in a private car with a driver and guide. We did take the train twice from Bukhara to Samarkand and from Samarkand to Tashkent. Both times we took the Sharq train and had a sleeper cabin that provided a nice space to nap. We were even served plov on our train to Tashkent. I slept mostly, but my travel partner said there were nice views of snow-capped mountains and verdant fields.


HIGHLIGHTS
I love architecture and Uzbekistan’s Islamic monuments are exquisite. The mosque and madrasahs in the historical silk road towns are all worth visiting. After 8 days in the country, you will see tons of them. They are all interesting but are constructed in very similar styles and layout. My highlights list really focuses on the sights of the trip that I thought were unique.

Tosh-Khovli Palace, Khiva
This former palace was beautiful tiled courtyard and brightly colored wooden ceilings. Tosh-Khovli has over 150 rooms and each other is slightly different. I could’ve spent hours here taking photos and exploring the palace.

Shakhi-Zinda necropolis, Samarkand
Shakhi-Zinda is a street of elaborated decorated tombs. Most of the exterior of the tombs are covered with infinite shades of blue and green tiles. The interior of the larger tombs contain domed ceilings with intricate designs. Hills surround the necropolis and offer great panoramic views of the site and better views of the distinctive domes.

Sitorai Mokhi-Khosa Palace, Bukhara
This was the summer residence for the emir. The palace is a unique combination of oriental and western styles. On the grounds are several other buildings, a large retention pool, a minaret, and many peacocks.

Tashkent Metro
The stations of the Tashkent Metro are gorgeous. I only visited four stations, but I was impressed. Photography is not allowed in the metro since it’s considered a government/military installation. Several police are stationed at the entrances and on the platform, so the risk is too great to sneak and take photos. UPDATE: Photos are now allowed in the Metro.


WHAT I MISSED
The itinerary for this trip was pretty comprehensive and I did a lot of research before arriving, so I managed to see almost everything I wanted.

Ark Fortress, Bukhara
I was sick the first morning in Bukhara, so my travel partner and the guide explored this fortress and museum without me.

Soviet architecture in Tashkent
I saw many of the buildings on my list, but Tashkent is a big city and it was difficult. Just driving around town, we discovered many additional Soviet gems that I didn’t know about. I need to improve my skill at taking photos from a moving car.

Aral Sea
This is a large dry sea (the size of Germany) that still has remnants of the sea villages that once occupied this area.

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