50 Shades of Blue: A Journey Through Uzbekistan

50 Shades of Blue: A Journey Through Uzbekistan

We trace one part of the storied Silk Road, traversing a country of mosques, markets and aqua-hued mosaics.

you received a postcard from Tashkent in the 1970s, it
probably would’ve borne the image of Hotel Uzbekistan. The wide,
curved structure, with its interlinking-cube façade, is a classic
example of Soviet modernist architecture. The lobby of the once
“10-star” hotel is now a picture of faded glamour: salmon pinks,
pine-hued marble flooring and large gilt chandeliers. Stepping
outside brings a sharp contrast; into dry heat and onto the flat,
wide Imperial Russian esplanades and lawns of Amir Temur Square.
Beyond that extend wide, tree-lined, perfectly manicured

Much of Tashkent was devastated by an earthquake in the 1960s
and the Uzbek capital’s modern-day aesthetic was shaped during
rebuilding under Moscow’s direction. The result: a mix of blocky,
clean-lined Soviet edifices, classical Russian architecture and
restored, dazzlingly blue-tiled 12th-century mosques. I am drawn to

for its unique design
mash-up of a few lucky surviving buildings and newly added
architecture that combines to reflect a fascinating political and
cultural history.

Tashkent has the look and feel of a modern post-socialist city –
its clean-lined buildings and pristine boulevards are much like
those you’ll find in the Chinese city of Shenzhen or the newer
parts of Beijing. The city feels tidy, intriguingly homogeneous:
around 80% of the cars in Tashkent are Chevrolets (thanks to a deal
with the Uzbek government) in a heat-reflecting white. Perpetual
sprinklers keep the impeccably tended street-side foliage lush in
this desert city.

Uzbekistan’s aesthetic edge, though, is in the incorporation of
traditional Islamic design. In Independence Square (Lenin Square
until independence in 1991), solid white marble columns hold up
mirrored, silver beams and three storks (the national animal)
dancing on a globe – but look closer for typically Islamic cobalt,
cyan and white tile patterns. Design reflects the imperial
approach: opposed to nation building, but making just a small
concession to local identity.

A stone mural above the entrance to the square’s subway depicts
a typically Soviet image of the region’s different nationalities
working together, while inside is a temple to modernism with an art
deco nod in boxy, tiered gold-and-glass chandeliers. Each of the 29
stations on the Tashkent Metro – built in the 1970s and one of the
most ornate in the world – are different, taking inspiration from
their location. There are underground baroque caverns, ornate
Islamic interchanges of turquoise and carved alabaster, and stark,
pared-back post-modern marble-walled spaces – linked by a fleet of
trains, some of them baby-blue with heavy purposeful doors that
look like something straight out of the Eastern Bloc.

As the country begins to open up more to visitors, it’s adding
more flights from major global cities (Uzbekistan Airways flies
from Heathrow three times a week and a weekly JFK flight just
launched) and working towards making the visa process cheaper and
easier. Get here before the crowds: there’s enough mosaic,
geometric and floral majolica tile porn in all shades of blue to
. And it’s wonderful to have the country’s mosques,
monuments and mausoleums in all their beauty almost to yourself –
my photos are tourist-free and I have the space to wander,
imagination running wildly to the time when these architectural
masterpieces were first unveiled.

I am most awestruck by
, one of the oldest cities in Central Asia. Registan
Square deserves its status as the country’s most famous monument
(even here it’s refreshingly un-busy). Built during the dynasty of
Amir Temur – a Turco-Mongol conqueror who ruled over much of Persia
and Central Asia and went on to conquer Delhi
and found the Indian Mughal empire – Registan was once the
commercial heart of medieval Samarkand. As a major stop on the Silk
Road, the turquoise domes and mosaic-clad buildings housed hectic,
thriving bazaars selling textiles and fabrics. The flat roof inside
its ornate mosque is painstakingly painted in dark blue and gold to
create the illusion of a dome.

Samarkand’s Gur-e-Amir mausoleum, with its intricate gold leaf
and tiered azure interior, and ribbed exterior turquoise domes, is
worth checking out, and we spend hours photographing the Shah-i
Zinda Necropolis in the north-eastern part of the city, with its
palatial medieval tombs for royalty and nobles that stand as a
shrine to Islamic art.

Key cities are linked by an inexpensive high-speed rail line,
also calling at Bukhara – worth a stop for its Old Town, endless
domes (always in a shade of cyan, chosen in the 15th century to
represent ascension to paradise in the sky), old bazaars,
Po-i-Kalyan Mosque and and Kalyan Minaret, a former execution site.
Here, we make our base at Hélène Oasis, a charming, traditional
Bukhara-style courtyard guesthouse, with Gallic hospitality (and
breakfasts), run by French-born Hélène, who fell in love with the
country and decided to stay.

But Uzbekistan isn’t all about the cities: 60% of the population
live in the countryside. The Nurata Mountains are as good a place
as any to experience the Central Asian desert. The drive out from
Bukhara traverses an arid, almost Martian landscape of arid banks
and craters, swathes of burnt scrubland and dust devils whipping
themselves up on the sand. A harsh landscape, yes, but one that
leads to the vast Aidar Lake, perfect for a cooling swim and
respite in an eponymous camp of charming, cosy yurts with handmade
carpets and textiles inside. Entertainment here comes in the form
of camel rides, Uzbek wine and music by a campfire.

The stars are way too bright here for sleeping inside, though:
with zero light pollution, we can even see Jupiter shining bright
in the night sky. To our hosts’ wonder – apparently we’re the first
to have this idea here – we drag our mattresses out onto benches
and spend a peaceful (thankfully mosquito-free) night under the
twinking, panoramic canopy.

The Lowdown

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