Travel to Uzbekistan
What child has not responded to the ring of those names, Bokhara, Khiva, Samarcand, and their images of cupolas and courts and shadows in the sand, images glinting with the scarlet thread of cruelty and spilt blood, names composed of syllables more haunting than the names of any other cities on earth?
Journey to Khiva by Philip Glazebrook
Uzbekistan is a young nation, but its roots are ancient, steeped in the legends of the steppe. From the West came Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan erupted from the East, while Tamerlane made his home the heartland of Central Asia, the remarkable historical and architectural legacy inherited by modern-day Uzbekistan.
It was the centre point of the greatest trade routes in history, the fragile threads of the Silk Road. Myriad teams of merchants and camel caravans laden with silk, spices and news braved this key stretch of the long haul from China to Rome. The region's cradle of culture for more than two millennia, it is the proud home to a spellbinding arsenal of architecture and artefacts, all deeply infused with the raw, fascinating history of the country.
Uzbekistan captures the imagination like almost nowhere else. The country is virtually synonymous with the Silk Road, and three of the greatest Silk Road cities - Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva - all fall on Uzbek soil. The names practically epitomise the region, conjuring up images of knife-twirling dervishes, serpentine desert caravans and architecture that blends with the sand. Alas, they sometimes overshadow the country's other attractions, which include dazzling bazaars, ancient desert fortresses and an impressive array of largely unsung natural attractions.
The people, ideas and goods that travelled east to west, and, indeed, west to east, have left indelible marks on Uzbekistan's landscape, its culture and the genetic make-up of its people, creating a diverse destination with layer upon layer of competing (but entwined) identities.
Local bazaars reveals the full cacophony of Uzbek life, trading, greeting and tea drinking in a swirl of long gowns and local silk. Apricots and pomegranates fill basins bordering melon carpets and cloth sacks pungent with spice. Bread-sellers push pram frames laden with baskets of freshly-baked non.
It is a country with a rich, fascinating past, and its long settled history has left numerous physical remains, making it far more tangible than in neighbouring Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan where nomadism was the norm. The country has been continually inhabited since Neanderthal man first walked across the steppe and took refuge in the Gissar Mountains south of Samarkand. His Stone Age descendants carved their marks in caves, and by the first millennium bc Iranian nomads had settled the grassy plains, planted crops and built rudimentary irrigation channels. In their wake came wave after wave of invaders: Scythians, Achaemenids, Greeks, Arabs and Mongols. Each group built palaces, fortresses, and places of worship and of trade, attempting to eclipse both physically and in public memory whatever had been there before.
In many ways, Uzbekistan is at a crossroads. This applies, as it has always done, in a physical sense, as the country lies in the heart of Eurasia: Europe and Iran are to the west; Russia is to the north; China is to the east; and Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent spread out southwards.
This young but ancient nation is still finding its feel, yet they brilliantly managed to preserve their traditions. Women walk resplendent in the bold stripes of their tie-dyed ikat gowns, topped with brightly patterned scarves. Older men retain the quilted khalat coats, embroidered skullcaps and leather boots. Drinking tea for hours, they swap stories at the local chaikhana teahouses, enjoying shashlik kebabs and melons from the bazaar. Loyalties lie with family, clan, village and oasis and respect for one's elders, the aksakal or whitebeards, is still a cornerstone of society. The Uzbek people remain good-spirited and genuinely hospitable - yet another prime attraction in this oddly endearing country. Perhaps the most welcome tradition for the traveller is the Uzbeks' renowned hospitality, as warm as ever, for 'the guest is the first person in the home'.