Saturday, 17 August 2013

The best of Uzbekistan

The fabled cities of this Central Asian country didn’t disappoint, and time briefly came to a halt during this journey through history.

NEVER in my wildest dreams did I think that this would be the first of the “-stans” I would visit. So here I am in Uzbekistan, and what a truly enjoyable experience!

In case you’re wondering, there are four other “-stans” – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. These five countries make up the Central Asian republics; other than Tajikistan (whose language is part of the Indo-Persian family), the other four have languages from the Turkic family.

Uzbekistan has borders with all four countries as well as Afghanistan. It is a land-locked country. In fact, other than Liechtenstein (in Europe), Uzbekistan is the only other doubly land-locked country in the world – meaning it’s surrounded by other land-locked countries!

By the way, “-stan” means “place of” or “land of”.

Incredible heritage

Uzbekistan’s major claim to fame would be its fabled cities, like Samarkand and Bukhara. They are major cities on the route of the equally fabled, historical and mystical old Silk Road.

The Bolo Hauz Mosque one of the most beautiful mosques in Bukhara and still in use (it was formerly used by the Emirs of the day and for dignitaries).
Elegant: The Bolo Hauz Mosque is one of the most beautiful mosques in Bukhara and still in use. It was formerly used by the Emirs of the day and for dignitaries.

These cities have been written about in a lot of literature and texts of many a historical journey.Since I was part of the first-ever Muslim Tour of Uzbekistan by PNL Travel, many of these marvellous historical sights (and of particular significance to Muslims) were part of the stops.

What made this tour even more special was that our first official travel stop was another stop on the Silk Road – the city of Khiva (or Xiva, as it is spelt here). Apparently, PNL is the first Malaysia tour group to offer this city on the itinerary.

Khiva is 35km south-east of Urgench, and both are in the province of Khorezm. What is so special about Khiva that we had to take a domestic flight to Urgench, some 985km to the west of Tashkent (where we flew in from Kuala Lumpur)?

In Khiva is Itchan Kala, the old city which is on the Unesco World Heritage listings, as are numerous other sites in Uzbekistan, notably in Samarkand and Bukhara.

Itchan Kala is like an open-air 10th century museum, a vast fortress filled with carefully preserved minarets, madrasah and mosques.

The Gur-I-Amir - the mausoleum of Amir Timur in Samarkand.
The Gur-I-Amir is the mausoleum of Amir Timur in Samarkand.

The most arresting sight would be the bluish-green Kalta-Minor minaret, which was designed to be the tallest in the world but was never finished. Then there is the equally magnificent 10th century Juma Mosque that was burnt but rebuilt though some of the finely detailed original columns are still to be seen. It has a 47m high minaret that can be climbed through a very dark, winding, claustrophobic wooden stairway of 81 steps (a small fee is charged for that). I did the climb with a fellow tour participant, Fajariah.

Our reward: a magnificent view of the city that included another breathtaking sight, the highest edifice in Khiva, the 56m Islam-Hoja minaret.

Utkir our Uzbek guide on our tour related a few local legends. For one, the origin of the name of the city – “A prophet was leading his people and they were thirsty and stopped in the middle of the desert. The prophet stamped his staff on the ground and water sprang out, and the people exclaimed “key vakh”, which means “what a pleasure”.

Despite being 503km away from Bukhara (Buxoro), our next stop, it is well worth the visit. But you will have to put up with an eight-hour overland journey to Bukhara. The roads are generally bad, though six months the same journey would have taken 12 hours, said our tour leader. However, highways are fast being built all along, from here to Tashkent; I wouldn’t be surprised if, in another year, the journey is further cut by half.

We basically drove through a flat desert filled with shrubs much like the Australian outback. It was a relief to finally reach Bukhara.

There are a number of architectural icons in Bukhara. The Citadel Ark is unusual in that it is a huge and imposing structure but also devoid of the usual detailing and ceramic tiling commonly found in historical buildings here.

An unmissable site is the 12th century Poi-Kalyan (also sometimes called Kalon) complex that has the triumvirate of the Kalyan Mosque, the imposing 48m Kalyan minaret and the Mir-i Arab madrasah. You can’t climb up the minaret but apparently in the old days, for certain offences, men were thrown from the top as punishment!

Another architectural wonder is the 9th century final resting place of Ismail Samani, a powerful emir of the Persian Samanid Dynasty who ruled the area then. Some say it has Zoroastrian influences in its design and detailing.

Timur country

Next up was Samarkand (Samarqand) but first we had a five-hour detour to Shahrisabz, the birthplace of Amir Timur (also known as Tamerlane). Timur was the national hero of Uzbekistan – he founded the Timurid Dynasty in 1370 and conquered and ruled West, South and Central Asia for 35 years.

Timur made Samarkand the capital. His grandson Ulugh Beg was a great astronomer and mathematician in his time. The Ulugh Beg Observatory is one of the biggest and finest observatories in the Islamic World and definitely worth a visit. The family’s influence continued when Timur’s great-great-great grandson Babur Beg founded the great Moghul Empire.

Before him were the Arabs, the Persians and the Mongols – in that order. After the Timurids, came different Uzbek tribes and rulers. Finally, in the late 19th century, it came under Russian, followed by Soviet rule under the USSR.

Uzbekistan gained independence in Sept 1, 1991.

Therefore, Timur’s birthplace is of historical significance to Uzbeks. But since getting there is an arduous journey, and all we see are a big modern statue of his likeness and two crumbling sides of the entrance to his summer palace Ak-Saray Palace, I would have given it a miss.

Better to spend time at Samarkand where his mausoleum, the Gur-I-Amir, is. Quite an impressive sight, especially the interior and the finishings. When we visited, there were many groups of local visitors, young and old.

Close by is Registan Square, of which our guide, Utkir remarked: “If you visit Uzbekistan and have not visited Samarkand, then you have not visited Uzbekistan; and if you have visited Samarkand and have not visited Registan, then you have not visited Samarkand!”

It’s a massive square fronted by three madrasahs, the Ulugh Beg (built first in the 15th century), followed by the Sher-Dor on the right (17th century) and Tilya-Kori in the centre (later in the 17th century).

They are beautiful and impressive – as are the gardens surrounding it.

The mausoleum of Imam Al-Bukary, the much-esteemed and venerated Sunni Islamic scholar who authored some of the hadith of the religion, is another essential place to visit. I missed it because I had opted out due to a bad attack of the Delhi Belly!

There’s also a long list of other sites like Bibi-Khanoum mosque and the Shakhi-Zindeh mosque that will take your breath away. So much to see and so little time.

At the capital city of Tashkent, our last brief stop before departure, we saw only two sights. The Khast Imam mosque where there is a library which has the oldest reputed Quran of the world – the Uthman Quran! There are also copies of the Quran from all over the world.

And finally a more modern edifice, the Independence Square. Vast beautifully landscaped gardens, interesting sculptures and many of the country’s administrative buildings are also housed within the grounds.

Everything is so clean in Uzbekistan, and the cities of Samarkand and Tashkent are very green. But other than the splendiferous monuments, Uzbek cities look like any Soviet ones – square, solid, low-rise buildings predominate.

Go for the heritage, the produce and, above all, the people.

> Call PNL Travel (03-9284 4859) or go to for more details.

Related story:

Bowled over by the people

Tags / Keywords: Travel , Uzbekistan , Khiva , Bukhara , Samarkand , Tashkent , food , mosques , madrasah , mausoleum

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