Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara: A Journey through Uzbekistan’s Silk Road Cities

Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara: A Journey through Uzbekistan’s Silk Road Cities

Layering myth over modernity in Uzbekistan‘s
Silk Road cities of Tashkent, Bukhara and

This article appears in Volume 28: The Cities

put money on the fact that you haven’t been to Uzbekistan
and probably couldn’t point to it on a map without a little
head-scratching. One of only two doubly landlocked countries in the
world (the other is Liechtenstein), the storied cities scattered
across the grasslands, deserts and valleys that make up Uzbekistan
were once the beating heart of the ancient Silk Road
trade route connecting
with the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Today,
however, the country receives only a handful of foreign visitors,
while most citizens don’t even have a passport.

Reactions to my trip range from the somewhat depressing “Is that
where Borat’s from?!” (nope, that’s Kazakhstan, and he’s not a real
person FYI) to the blinkered yet not uncommon “why on earth would
you want to visit a ‘Stan’?!”. Despite being Central Asia’s most
populous country and one of the world’s richest nations in terms of
resources (large oil and gas reserves mean Uzbekistan is entirely
self-sufficient in terms of energy, while it’s also among the top
producers of cotton and gold), Uzbekistan occupies a thin slice of
my own knowledge, limited to vague allusions in my school history
syllabus that skated over the country in reference to the Persian
Empire and Soviet Union.

This cloak of mystery is gradually being lifted, however, as a
new government has relaxed visa requirements in a bid to attract
more tourism, and Uzbekistan doubled its intake of visitors in
2018. Regardless, tourist numbers remain low; I can count the
number of British accents I hear on one hand, despite following the
standard route tracing the Silk Road cities of Tashkent (the
capital), Bukhara and Samarkand. In Uzbekistan, you are off the
beaten track simply by being here, and in a week of constant
surprises, I glimpse oxymorons that both puzzle and delight as the
country seeks to navigate a new path between an exoticised,
religious past and a modern, cosmopolitan future.

A trip to this “land of a thousand shrines” largely revolves
around religious sightseeing, paying homage to the spectacular
mosques, madrassas (religious schools), minarets and mausoleums
that I had previously associated with Iran. These
sacred places offer an opportunity for tourism following decades of
authoritarian, isolationist rule, and the country’s attitude of
tolerance towards other cultures and religions will no doubt serve
this well. This happy coexistence of liberality with deep-rooted
religious beliefs makes sense; Uzbekistan is and always has been a
melting pot. For centuries, thousands of merchants of diverse
origins traversed the country trading ideas, values and beliefs as
much as they did goods.


We begin our pilgrimage in Tashkent, where this diversity is
reflected in architecture that is a bewitching mishmash of ancient,
colonial and soviet buildings, jostling alongside one another in a
bricks-and-mortar personification of the nation’s multifarious
history. We spend a day gawping at towering, sand-coloured
monuments covered in a kaleidoscope of blue mosaics and tiles,
topped by voluptuous aquamarine domes that glimmer in sunlight that
shines over 300 days a year. At nightfall we jump on the metro – a
subterranean contrast to these sky-high edifices, it’s a
magnificent labyrinth of palaces built under the Soviets, each
station individually designed by local artists and architects.
Ornately constructed out of metal, granite, marble, glass, ceramics
and carved alabaster, the aesthetic down here would make
Wes Anderson
weak at the knees.

While Lenin may have attempted to stamp out local creativity and
culture in a bid to secure control, traditional artistry is
currently seeing a renaissance. In a quiet Tashkent neighbourhood
we drink spiced tea in the fruit tree-filled garden of ceramicist
Akbar Rakhimov, who modestly brushes away our guide’s assertion
that he’s the most celebrated potter in Uzbekistan. Instead he
points to his father, whose dream it was to start a ceramics school
– an aspiration that Akbar has recently realised. Today, his
grandchildren are getting their hands dirty, deftly moulding clay
into figurines impressive beyond their years. It’s a nod to an
entrepreneurial younger generation that is embracing modernity
while trying to revive long-standing cultural traditions.

I am surprised by present-day attitudes towards the era of
Soviet rule. While my schoolgirl conception is largely one of
suffering under the iron fist of communism, the Uzbeks I meet are
quick to point out positives such as the abolishment of sharia law,
compulsory education and a world-class intelligence system, the
KGB, to whom many attribute the country’s internal security today
(unlike Afghanistan, Uzbekistan has largely managed to quash
factions such as Isis). The impressive power of the old KGB can be
seen in its behemoth headquarters in the town centre, an
intimidating, modernist building that has now been nostalgically
reimagined as the grand Hotel Uzbekistan.

Family remains central to Uzbek life, with girls marrying young
– brightly lit wedding shops seem to crop up on every corner, while
heavily made-up teenaged brides pouting for extended photoshoots in
front of various landmarks make for excellent people-watching. This
family orientation means that, in a country where tourism is still
in its genesis, it can be tricky to experience local life, as the
majority of people still spend their leisure time at home rather
than spilling out of restaurants, shops and bars.


Known as the “fairy-tale town” or “the Eastern dome of Islam”,
Bukhara is a holy relic with more than 140 historical monuments
dotted across its new and old town. The crumbling remnants of a
city wall and a hulking fortress dating from the fifth century are
an ode to the legendary emirs that ruled these lands for

The focal point of the town is Lyab-i-Khauz, where a tranquil
17th-century pond draped with weeping willows makes Udaipur
spring to mind. It is surrounded by three of the most striking
buildings in Central Asia – Kukeldash Madrasah, Nadir Divan-Begi
Khanaka and Nadir Divan-Begi Madrasah – each a mind-bogglingly
impressive example of medieval Islamic architecture. Our necks
seize from craning our heads upwards to look at their vertiginous
pillars of ornately carved wood and inlaid mosaics.

Bukhara is also a city of artisans, a womb that has for
centuries given lifeblood to over 100 different crafts including
metal chasing, suzani embroidery, miniature painting and
calligraphy. The current government is making efforts to propagate
these traditions and we pay a visit to the home of Davlat Toshev, a
seventh-generation miniature painter whose artworks sell
internationally for thousands of dollars. Bent over handmade silk
paper, microscope in one hand, paintbrush in the other, he
painstakingly daubs intricate depictions of ancient life using
natural paint, tempura and gold leaf while earnestly speaking of
his wish to reinstate Bukhara as the centre of miniature painting.
Before I leave, he places his hand on his heart and bows – the
traditional Uzbek way for men to greet or bid farewell to women –
thanking me for visiting his country and urging me to spread the
word about Uzbekistan in my own.

It’s a similar story when we knock on the door of his brother,
Rakhmon, a master of suzani embroidery whose cool, characterful
house is like an Aladdin’s cave of Silk Road curios. Every surface
is draped in technicolour tapestries and priceless antiques. Plates
piled high with homemade plov – the hearty national dish comprised
of rice, meat and boiled vegetables, scattered with raisins and
laced with cumin, cardamom and turmeric, this one topped with quail
eggs – Rakhmon explains that suzani remains an important part of an
Uzbek bride’s dowry, the meticulous needlework depicting flowers,
almonds, pomegranates and snakes not only symbolising love, wealth,
health and wisdom but also demonstrating her patience. His children
are taking the baton and becoming expert embroiders, and just that
week he’s sold several silken tapestries to a US art collector.

From these celebrated brothers to the humble artisans that line
the streets of the old town and the workers we meet on an impromptu
visit to a silk factory, there is a profound dedication to seeing
craftsmanship thrive. As we peer through the turrets of the
amber-hued Ark fort that evening, it occurs to me that Bukhara’s
cityscape is its own tapestry telling this story; the skyline is
populated by mosques and minarets which stand as proud relics of
the past, while cranes and ferris wheels point to its rapid
development along an as yet unknown trajectory.


The final stop on our Silk Road pilgrimage, Samarkand is one of
the oldest existing cities in the world, built on the site of
Afrasiab and thought to date back to around 1500 BCE. Described as
the “pearl of the East” or “garden of the soul”, its crowning glory
is the imposing Registan Square, a Unesco World Heritage Site where
three spectacular madrassas, built to attract scholars of
astronomy, literature and psychology, represent some of the finest
examples of Islamic architecture in the world.

Today, Samarkand is the cultural capital of Uzbekistan, and yet
again I lose Joel as he snaps endless pictures of grandiose facades
and tiled domes. The gargantuan magnificence of these monuments
never wears thin, and I sit quietly in the shade and watch a group
of impeccably dressed septuagenarians engaged in a high-spirited
game of chess, their periwinkle-blue shirts, navy trousers and saxe
skull caps reflecting the hues of the mosaics. I steal a
clandestine photograph of them and, at dinner that evening, Joel
and I pour over our reams of images as we sip vodka (a Russian
introduction) and tackle a table that groans under the weight of
fresh salads, herb-laden yoghurt soup, mutton-stuffed dumplings and
deep-fried cheese in a balmy whitewashed courtyard.

It’s only when I return to London and visit my parents for
supper on a decidedly less balmy terrace a few weeks later that I
discover my mother visited Uzbekistan over 40 years ago. After some
extensive bookshelf rummaging she pulls out a gloriously 1970s
floral-patterned photo album that I leap upon and eagerly begin to
flick through. I skip past grinning portraits of retro outfits and
questionable haircuts and soon begin to see domes and minarets I
recognise. Not only that, I am stunned when I come across one, two,
three, four images where, upon laying the bright screen of my
iPhone alongside her faded snaps, we realise we must’ve been stood
on the same spot, down to the very inch. I flip over another page,
and it’s then I see a group of impeccably dressed elderly gentlemen
gathered around a chess table in Registan Square. They can’t be the
same group, but I like to think that the men that I saw were their
sons, and that their sons will gather around the same table, and
their sons after that.

The Lowdown

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