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Alexander citadel in Nurata, UzbekistanTo the north of the featureless Samarkand–Bukhara ‘Royal Road’, the Pamir-Alay Mountains produce one final blip on the map before fading unceremoniously into desertified insignificance. The Nuratau Mountains, which top out at 2169 m, are rapidly becoming the centre of Uzbekistan’s growing ecotourism movement. Modest Nurata town makes a logical base for jumping off to the mountains or to one of several nearby yurt camps.

Nurata city is surrounded by the Nuratau Mountains and is home not only to a fortress supposedly built by Alexander the Great but also a medieval pilgrimage site supposedly linked to Hazrat Ali. The city also serves as the transport hub (and occasional overnight stopover) for those camel trekking in the Kyzylkum Desert or trekking and birdwatching in the stunning and remarkably unspoilt Nuratau Kyzylkum Biosphere Reserve.

Local people believe that Nurata was founded as Nur by Alexander the Great in 327bc. They credit Alexander with building the hilltop fort and also the kariz, a complex water system that brought drinking water several kilometres from a spring right into the centre of the citadel. This ancient town held a strategic position on the frontier between the cultivated lands and the steppe. It lends its name to the nearby mountain range, the westernmost spur of the Gissaro Alai, soon expiring in Kyzyl Kum wasteland. Today, home to 30,000 people and renowned for marble and astrakhan fur production, Nurata has retained some of the holy sites that attracted pilgrims from all over Central Asia. 

First and foremost, if you are sightseeing in Nurata you will want to visit Alexander's Fort. It is strategically located on the top of a hill to the south of the town, and Uzbek sources suggest that Alexander instructed one of his generals to build an inpenetrable fortress here while he continued his conquest of Bactria and Sogdiana. When Alexander returned, his troops could neither break down the gates nor scale the walls, such was the strength of the construction.

It is a steep climb to the top of the site. What appears to be clay underfoot is, in fact adobe bricks, compacted by thousands of sandalled feet and the elements over two millennia. In places you can still make out their individual shapes, and it's slightly eerie if you're on your own to think of the men who built it, lived and worked here. It's timeless. The central citadel, once measuring half a kilometre in each direction, has long gone, but one glance at the view, across the mountains and across Nurata itself, reveals exactly why Alexander (if indeed it was he) chose this spot, and why it was such a good decision.

Nurata became important again at the start of the Islamic era as Hazrat Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, is said to have struck the ground here with his staff, and the Chashma Spring spurted forth. The 10th-century Bukharan chronicler Muhammad Narshakhi recorded people having visions of the Prophet in Nurata, and hence it became an important regional pilgrimage centre, with all the mosques, resthouses and other supporting structures you would expect.

Chasma spring in NuraraBeneath Alexander’s fortress you’ll encounter the anomaly of several hundred trout occupying a pool and well next to a 16th-century mosque and a 9th-century mausoleum. This is the Chashma Spring, formed, it is said, where the Prophet Mohammed’s son-inlaw Hazrat Ali drove his staff into the ground. Hundreds of holy (unfishable) trout swim in mineral packed water. The ‘holy’ fish live off the mineral-laden waters of the spring and canals that feed it. Regardless of the time of year, the mineral-laden spring water Is said to remain at a consistent 19.1°C. Also on the grounds here is a small museum (working hours 7am-5pm Tue-Sun) that details local history and culture through tools, clothes and ceramics.

Parents anoint their children, while others fill bottles for ailing relatives. A grave nearby may be that of one of Alexander's generals who died here whilst on campaign. By the spring is the Juma Mosque, first built in the 10th century to accommodate visiting pilgrims when they came to pray. The mosque has been rebuilt several times; the current structure (mostly 16th century) has 25 cupolas, one of which has a diameter of 16m and hence is amongst the largest in central Asia.

Nurata is most famous for its old, circlepatterned suzani, which can sell for thousands of dollars at international auctions, but it also has a few quirky tourist attractions, most notably an old fortress of Alexander the Great. You can make like Alexander – go ahead, even throw on your suit of armour – and clamber all over the fortress, which looms over the town like a giant sandcastle. Behind the fortress, a path leads 4km to the Zukarnay Petroglyphs, which date to the Bronze Age. Ask the curator at the museum how to find the trail. If it’s too hot to walk, there are sometimes guys with motorcycles hanging out near the museum who will whisk you out there for a couple of thousand som. (If you miss these, there are many more petroglyphs at Sarmysh Gorge, accessible by car 40km northeast of Navoi.)

Nurata MountainsNuratau Mountains

South of Lake Aidarkul, there is great hiking and birdwatching in the mountains of the Nuratau-Kyzylkum Biosphere Reserve, which is also the site of a wonderful community-based tourism project – the only one of its kind in Uzbekistan. Under this UN Development Programme–sponsored ‘cultural tourism’ project, families in several villages have converted their homes into rustic guesthouses. The families offer hiking, horse- and donkey-riding, traditional cooking, weaving and craft-making lessons, and the opportunity to breathe in mountain air and sleep on tapchan (tea beds) under the stars. During winter weekends you can observe authentic kupkari (traditional polo-like game played with a headless goat carcass) matches.

This is a great opportunity to interact with the local ethnic Tajiks in their element – and a great way to ward off architecture burnout if you’ve seen one too many medressas. The program’s website has information on getting to the various villages.

Getting there Shared taxis to Nurata from Navoi leave from the main bus station in Karmana and take one hour. The fare is US$2 per person, or US$1.50 if you travel by minibus. If you are travelling on to Lake Aidarkul and the yurt camps, you will need a private car or taxi. Expect to pay around US$20 each way. Nurata itself is a small town and easily traversed on foot. There is also a minibus service running between the old and new parts of the town.