The vast province of Navoi covers almost a quarter of Uzbekistan's territory but includes just a fraction of the country's population, as much of the region is covered by the inhospitable Kyzylkum Desert. Despite the arid climate, cotton is still grown here, though Navoi's real income comes from what lies beneath the ground: natural gas, oil and precious metals.
For short-term visitors, Navoi Province offers camel trekking and desert safaris, Bronze Age petroglyphs and medieval caravanserais. Lake Aidarkul is one of the best birdwatching sites in Uzbekistan, and it is possible to stay in yurts along the shore.
Both the province and the provincial capital take their name from the Timurid poet and politician Alisher Navoi. Navoi is 30-something city that has replaced desert with urban sprawl, it was refounded and renamed only in 1958. Just a few kilometres along a wide highway divide the Uzbek mud walled houses of Karmana and the high-rise workers' blocks of Navoi. Guides point proudly to the streets, offices and parks of progress, while an industrial zone of electrochemical works chokes out the environmental cost. The town makes its money from mining and processing minerals (including gold), natural gas, and producing chemical fertilisers. The majority of foreigners coming here are on business, though you may also pass through en route to Karmana and Nurata.
For the visitor, Navoi is an accessible example of a Soviet Uzbek new town, conjured from nothing into the capital of the republic's largest and newest province. Population density is the lowest in the country, as the territory falls within the vast Kyzyl Kum (Red Sands) - the biggest desert plain in Central Asia at around 300,000 square kilometres. This ancient scourge of travellers and invaders remains both a challenge to development and a tempting treasury of precious resources. Nomadic herdsmen share the steppe-land with state cotton farms and new towns like Zerafshan built around the gold mining centre of Muruntau.
Navoi grew out of the desert in the 20th century, so there's unfortunately little to see within the city itself. You can take a walk in Victory Park (block north of Tolstoy & Galaba) or around the manmade Lake Navoi in Alisher Navoi Park, where there is also a statue of the great man himself. For more options, you'll need to head to Karmana instead.
Soviet engineers are but the latest to leave their mark on the desert. Three thousand years earlier, men were engraving scenes in stone that survive today. The Sarmysh gorge north of Navoi offers a rich taste of this most ancient Central Asian art. Over 3,000 petroglyphs from the Bronze Age to the Early Middle Ages lie on a dramatic canvas of dark shale rock in the Karatau (Black) hills. For over ten kilometres one can scramble among the rocks to find remarkable images of primitive man and the animals so central to his existence. Beside bulls, deer, goals, dogs and horses, human figures hunt with weapons or perform ritual dances. In common with early cultures elsewhere, fertility is depicted by extremely well-endowed men. Research on the petroglyphs continues to look for clues into the remote society that produced them. Tourists should visit for the sheer vitality of antiquity on show, plus some surreal surprises such as a lifelike spaceman, perhaps presaging Soviet cosmonaut hero Yuri Gagarin.
The road to Nurata leaves the scrubby desertscape to wind through the Karatau range, over Black Crow Pass and down to the ruined fort of Debaland, once a link in the fire message chain. Next to it is a 16th- century memorial complex for the venerated, renovated tombs of two brothers, Imam Hasan (625-669) and Imam Husein (626-680), sons of Hazrat Ali, husband of the prophet Mohammed's fourth daughter. Their tombs rest in identical halls separated by a small mosque. Long poles bearing white flags and a hand shape on lop denote their holy status.
The Royal Road
The Shokh Rokh (Shah Rah), or Royal Road, was a major Silk Road thoroughfare uniting the foremost cities of Transoxiana, Samarkand and Bukhara. Merchants faced a six- or seven-day journey to cover the 270-kilometre stretch along the Zerafshan Valley. Today, most travellers rush through in their enthusiasm to reach Bukhara, but the intervening sites are rich in history, well worth a couple of leisurely breaks.
Three flights a week connect Tashkent with Navoi, which is rapidly becoming an important transcontinental cargo hub. There are also occasional connections to Moscow and St Petersburg. The airport (www.navoi-airport.com) is 25 kilometres along the road west to Bukhara (one km short of Rabat-i-Malik). Navoi has the main train station and Karmana the bus station. Trains pass through towards Bukhara/ Urgench and Samarkand/Tashkent/Ferghana Valley, but buses are preferable for greater frequency and ticket availability. Many buses run Karmana-Nurata, but reaching Sarmysh gorge or Aidarkul Lake is difficult without hired transport. Sarmysh is sign posted on the road to Nurata, where a track leads 25 kilometres through the desert into the Karatau hills. The petroglyphs begin shortly after a Young Pioneers camp.