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Highlights of Uzbekistan

It's cliched but true to say that Uzbekistan offers a little something for everyone. Whether your idea of a trip of a lifetime is wandering amongst the medieval tombs of Samarkand, shopping in Tashkent's vast Chorsu Bazaar or trekking across the Kyzylkum Desert by camel and sleeping in a nomad's yurt, you won'tbe disappointed. The challenge is how to pack everything into the time available. If you're in need of a little guidance, here are our must-see sights and experiences:

CAMEL TREKKING We've sadly found that camels are invariably smelly, bad-tempered and jolly uncomfortable to ride. However, the Silk Road would never have got going without them, and so you'll need to saddle up if you want the full, authentic experience. The best camel treks are around Nurata in the Kyzylkum Desert and they combine well with a yurt stay and some splendid star-gazing.

CHORSU BAZAAR The bazaar is the first and only place where we've seen the boot and back seat of a Lada stacked to the gunwales with decapitated cow heads. Quite what they were doing there we can only dread to think, but in Chorsu Bazaar they didn't look a bit out of place. The modern incarnation of Silk Road trading posts now long gone, the market buzzes with energy and everything conceivable (and, like the cow heads, a few things normally inconceivable) is for sale. You can of course buy a trailer-load of watermelons and 300 plastic buckets, but the real delight comes in spending an hour or three exploring the trading domes, drinking bowls of fragrant black tea, smelling the shashlik grilling and engaging in an animated, good-natured haggle for a bag of salted pistachios and a fresh, pink pomegranate.

HOTEL ORIENT STAR A single hotel wouldn't normally feature in the highlight's section of our guide, but then the Hotel Orient Star is no ordinary hotel. The Muhammad Amin Khan Madrassa, in the heart of Khiva's Ichan Kala, has been sensitively converted so that all mod cons are hidden behind the elaborately tiled 19th-century facade. Each room is inside a former hujra (student's cell), and the hotel courtyard once housed the city's Supreme Court.

IGOR SAVITSKY MUSEUM There would be little reason to come to Nukus at all if it weren't for the Igor Savitsky Museum, an unexpected treasure trove of Soviet avant-garde art from the 1920s and 30s. The 2010 documentary Desert of Forbidden Art provides an informative and moving account of Savitsky's life and work and will certainly whet your appetite and motivate you to make the trek out to what feels like the other side of the moon.

KHOREZM FORTRESSES It is of course possible to come to Khorezm and only visit Khiva, but you'd sadly be missing out. Not far away, on the edge of the Kyzylkum Desert, are a string of fortresses dating from the early centuries bc. The most impressive are the mud-brick Toprak Kala and the Koi Krylgan Kala, but there are plenty of smaller sites if you want to explore on your own.

KHUDYAR KHAN'S PALACE The 19th-century palace of Khudyar Khan, ruler of Kokand, once had more than 100 rooms and was described as the most magnificent in central Asia. Though a shadow of its former self, 19 of its rooms do survive and in them are displayed an eclectic collection of jewellery, stuffed animals, fine woodcarvings and objects dart.

P0I KALY0N The entirety of Bukhara probably deserves mentioning as a highlight, but it is the Poi Kalyon that particularly caught our eye. This simple square is framed by some of the most spectacular buildings on earth: the Mir-i Arab Madrassa, the Kalyon Juma Mosque and the majestic 11th-century Kalyon Minar. It's photogenic from every angle.

SHAH-I ZINDA Most people come to Samarkand for the Registan but, though it is undoubtedly impressive, the city's real gem is the collection of medieval tiled tombs known as the Shah-i Zinda (the Living King). Approaching through the back entrance (accessed through the parallel cemetery, watching out for the resident marmots) at dusk, the experience is magical. The tour groups have retreated to their hotels for dinner, as have the schoolchildren, and if you're lucky you'll have the place to yourself.

Architecture - Uzbekistan has preserved a rich architectural heritage. The construction of monumental buildings was seen as a matter of prestige, emphasizing the power of the ruling dynasty, leading families and higher clergy. The external appearance of towns was determined to a great extent by their fortifications. The walls were flanked at regular intervals by semicircular towers and the entrances to towns were marked by darwazas (gates). These gates usually had a high vault and a gallery for lookout and were flanked by two mighty towers. The doors were closed at night and in case of danger. Along the main streets were rows of shops, specialized in different goods, and many skilled craftsmen had their workshops in these stalls. The most important covered markets are called tag, tim or bazaars (shopping passages( and charsu (crossroads, literally "four directions"). In big cities the ark (fortress) was the administrative center. It contained the emir's palace, chancellery, treausry, arsenal and the jail for high-ranking prisoners. The towns also had large public centres, consisting of a maydan (open square) surrounded by large buildings for civil or religious purposes.

Religious buildings - The Friday Mosque (Masjid-i Juma) is located in the town. It had a spacious courtyard with a surrounding gallery and a maqsura (screened-off enclosure) in the main axis. A typical example is the Kalan Mosque at Bukhara. The Oratory Mosque (Namazgah) is situated outside of the town. Prayers at two important Muslim festivals were conducted in public. The worshippers gathered in an open space in front of the building where the minbar (imam's pulpit) stood. The Neighbourhood Mosque was smaller in size and consisted of a covered hall with the mihrab and an exterior gallery with columns. They were built from donations of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood and are often richly decorated. An example of this type is the Baland (Boland) Mosque at Bukhara.

The Madrasa is an institition for higher education of ulama (Islamic scholars). The madrasa has a courtyard with two or four aywand (arched portals) on the axes which were used as classrooms in the summer, a row of cells on one or two floors, darsakhanas (lecture rooms) in two or four corners and a mosque for daily prayer. The main facade has a high portal with two or four minaret-like towers at the corners of the building. Madrasas from the 16th and 17th cent. which have been preserved are Madar-Khan, Abdullah Khan, Kukeldash, Nadir Divan Begi and Abdul Aziz Khan at Bukhara, Shir-Dor and Tilla-Kari at Samarkand, Kukeldash and Baraq Khan in Tashkent, Said Ataliq at Denau and Mir Rajab Dotha at Kanibadam. Madrasas built in the 18th and 19th cent. include Narbuta Bi at Kokand, Qutlugh Murad Inaq, Khojamberdybii, Khoja Moharram, Musa Tura and Allah-Quili Khan in Khiva.

The Khanaqah was originally a guest house for travelling Sufis near the residence of their pir (spiritual masters). Under the Timurids they became meeting places of the followers of a Sufi order, attended by representatives of the ruling elite and often a zikr-khana (room for exposition and Sufi rites) was added. Examples of khanaqas from the 16th and 17th cent include Zaynuddin, Fayzabad, Bahaudin and Nadi Divan-Begi at Bukhara, Mulla Mir near Ramitan, Qasim Shaiykh at Karmana and Imam Bahra near Khatirchi.

Memorial buildings were erected in the 14th and 15th cent for Temur and his family, e.g. Gur-Emir and Shah-i Zinda at Samarkand and at Shakrizabs. In the 16th and 17th cent. fewer mausoleums were built. An example from this period is the Qafal Shashi Mausoleum in Tashkent. Monumental buildings were often erected near holy tombs. At Bukhara a monumental kanaqah was built near the founder of the Naqshbandi order, Bahauddein and at Char Bakr, the family necropolis of the powerful Juybari shaykhs. From the 16th cent. onwards mauseoleums for rulers were no longer built. The rulers were interred in madrasas, the Shaybanids of Samarkand in the Abu Said Mausoleum on the Registan, Ubaydullah Khan from Bukhara in the Mir-i Arab Madrasa and Abdul Aziz Khan in the Abdul Aziz Madrasa.

Civic architecture - Market buildings (Charsu, Tim, Taq) form the very heart of an oriental town. The charsu is a building covered by a central dome, standing at the crossroads, surrounded by shops and workshops covered by small domes. The tim is a trading passage and the taq a domed building on a smaller scale built at the intersection of major streets. At Bukhara the Taq-i Zargaran (Goldsmiths' Dome) has an octagonal central space covered by a dome set on 32 intersecting arches. Shops and workshops around the central space are toppes by small domes.

Caravanserais played an important role along the trade routes. According to the traditional plan a caravanserai is a rectangular building with a large courtyard, galleries for animals and baggage, lodgings for the travellers and a mosque. The outer walls were high and thick, the entrance was well guarded and at the corners there were towers for defense. The best exampla is at Rabat al-Malik. A small number of caravanserais have survived, party in ruins, e.g. the caravanserai near the Qaraul Bazar on the road from Bukhara to Karshi, the Abdullah Khan caravanserai on the road from Karshi to Termez.

Bathhouses from the 16th and 17th cent. have been preserved at Samarkand, Sahrh-i Sabz, Bukhara and Tashkent. They are heated by a system of channels under the floor, distributing the heat uniformly through the whole building. Some of them have rooms for disrobing, hot and cold rooms, a massage room or a water closet. Bathhouses are covered with domes which give them their characteristic external appearance.

Architectural Ensembles:
The Pay-i Kalan Pedestal of the Great at Bukhara
The Kosh Madrasa at Bukhara
The Lab-i Hauz at Bukhara
The Registan at Samarkand
The Char-Bakr Complex at Sumitan, outside of Bukhara

Nature Reserves - Jeyran Ecological Centre, (40 km from Bukhara). The jeyran (Central Asian gazelle) was hunted in the last century by men in jeeps and helicopters. Today, the Uzbekistan jeyran is included in the Red Book of Endangered Species). The Jeyran ecological centre was founded about 1985 and is the only one of its kind in Central Asia. At the beginning 42 jeyrans were brought here, but today 700 unique animals live here in a fenced area of 5000 hectares. Besides jeyrans, Prezhevalskiy horses and koulans are bred in the reserve.

Kyzylkum Tugai and Sand Reserve, (in the north-west of Bukhara Province). The reserve was founded in 1971. It covers the flood-lands of the Amu Darya river and the sand-dune desert near-by. The riverside vegetation occupies an area of 3177 hectares and the sand area is 2544 hectares. The best time to visit the reserve is spring. According to ornithologists there are 190 species of birds in the reserve, including herons, river terns, wild ducks, sandpipers NS turtle-doves. The reserve has a lush flora of poplars, silver oleasters and riverside willows. Deer, wild boars, wolves, jackals, foxes, hares and reed cats live on the tugai woods and zhe population of jeyrans is being restored. 

Nuratau-Kyzylkum Biospheric Reserve. The Nuratau-Kyzylkum Biospheric Reserve is being implemented by the government of Uzbekistan, Global Ecology Fund and UN Development Program and co-financed by German Union of Nature Protection. The reserve lies between the desert and mountain systems of Central Asia. It consists of the southern part of the Kyzylkum Desert, lakes Aydarkul and Tuzgan and the mountain ridges of Nuratau and Koitash. The existing Nurata Reserve and Arnasay Ornithological Reserve on Lake Tuzgan will be integrated into the new Nuratau-Kyzylkum Biospheric Reserve. Among the animals integtrated in the Red Book of Endagered Species are the Severtsev ram or Kyzylkum ram, golden eagle, bearded and black griffon-vulture. In the reserve are rare sorts of walnut-trees, Central Asian juniper, Bukhara almond-trees, pistachio-trees, wild vines, apricot-trees, apple-trees and various sorts of dog-roses. Nuratau-Kyzylkum Biospheric Reserve will be included in the UNESCO global list of biosphere reserves. The experiences will be used in founding biosphere reserves in the Central Kyzylkum Desert, Southern Ustyurt Desert and the tugai woods of the river Amu Darya. 

Ugam-Chatkal National Park, (in the spurs of the Western Tien Shan, about 80 km from Tashkent). Ugam-Chatkal National Park is one of the oldest nature reserves in Uzbekistan, founded in 1947. The Western Tien Shan is the natural habitat to 44 species of mammals, 230 species of birds and 1168 species of plants including several endemic plants. In the National Park live white-claw bears, wolves, Tien Shan foxes, red marmots, stone-martens, Turkestan lynx, snow leopards, wild boars, badgers, Siberian roes, mountain goast and Tien Shan wild rams as well as wild turkeys, mountain partridges, golden eagles, bearded and eagle vultures. The slopes of the Pskem ridge are covered with walnut-trees, wild fruit trees and wild bushes. The banks of the river are occupied by archa (Central Asian juniper). The Chimgan-Charvak-Beldersay Resort Zone, covering an area 100,000 hectares, has three health-recreation complexes: 'Charvak', 'Chimgan' and 'Beldersay'.