Journey across Uzbekistan; from Tashkent up to the ikat production centre of Margilan in the Ferghana Valley, then southeast to the ancient Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. It's a journey over high mountain passes, through desolate deserts, across The Hungry Steppe, and to some of the most historically rich and under-visited cities in the world.
This is the first of our Travel Guide Series to discovering the best of Asia. In this series, I condense my most memorable and special experiences of travel across the continent into essential travel guides for finding the most beautiful and authentic textiles, the chicest teahouses, the choicest shopping and the sites which will show you a beautiful but lesser-known face of Asia.
1. The Silk Road cities: Bukhara, Samarkand, (Khiva)
If you can only make it to one city in Uzbekistan, make it Bukhara. While Samarkand has incredible buildings on a grand scale, Bukhara has gorgeous architecture as well as a charm that is irresistible: a wonderful old city to explore by foot, a long menu of stunning sites to visit, cosy cafes to sit in and write your journal, and some of the best shopping in Uzbekistan. Bukhara is one of my favourite cities in all of Asia! I didn't make it to Khiva but it's on my list for the next trip.
Take at least 2-3 days to explore Bukhara. You'll need another 2-3 days to visit Samarkand (which can be stopped at conveniently on the journey between Tashkent and Bukhara). Khiva, which is much further to West, will need at least another 4 days.
2. The people
Without a word of Uzbek or Russian, I was expecting traveling around Uzbekistan as a solo traveler to be a challenge. It was, in fact, a breeze! Everyone I met along the way was hospitable, very respectful, and people went out of their way to be helpful. As an outsider, I found the faces and clothing and culture of Uzbeks to be fascinating. And locals were just as curious of me as I was of them! Striking up conversations (even if only with a few Uzbek words and sign language) with strangers was a frequent occurrence.
And for my fellow female travellers, it's worth adding that you won't find any difficulties travelling as a woman. I never felt unsafe at any point. Just show respect by dressing conservatively, especially in Ferghana Valley.
3. Uzbek traditional textiles and culture
The textiles (above all, ikats, but also suzanis, carpets, chapans and other traditional clothing) and vintage items (like brassware, Samovars and Russian ceramics) were fascinating to discover (and shop). I love discovering unique, beautiful and unusual items while traveling, and in Uzbekistan you will find plenty. Your biggest problem will be how to bring it all home with you! For textile lovers, a visit to Margilan will be a highlight of your time in Uzbekistan.
Aside from the shopping, soaking up the history and culture is best done through exploring by foot, traveling by train and eating at the chaikhanas. One of the most interesting aspects for me, as an Aussie, was the mix of Central Asian culture and lingering Soviet influence that you still find across the country. It's akin to the curious British influences you can still find in the Sub-continent; but all the more fascinating for being Russian and thus, to me, unfamiliar.
Shop our authentic Uzbek Ikat Scarves!
4. The Chaikhana (Teahouse) Culture
Chai is a central part of life in Uzbekistan. Everywhere you go you will find people drinking copious amounts of green and black tea. There is often a large boiler of hot water at hand, and you can still find the old Russian samovars in use (note: some stunning samovars are for sale at Silk Road Spices Teahouse in Bukhara).
Whiling away the time at chaikhanas is a pleasure. Most meals at the traditional chaikhanas are only available for lunch, as they will cook a huge pot in the morning and then once it's sold out, that's it for the day. If you're female, you may find that your'e the only woman in a teahouse. But don't let this put you off. You'll only be a source of curiosity which is also a good conversation starter!
The Silk Road Spices Teahouse in Bukhara. The most common sight is the pakhtor tea set. Pakhtor is cotton in Uzbek and an important national symbol. You will find pakhtor teapots and cups like those in the image above everywhere in the country.
You'll probably end up in Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan, at at least one point during your trip as it's the main port of entry into the country. It's definitely worth stopping for a couple of days! Exploring Tashkent by foot will give you a wonderful insight into the country, its people, and fractured history.
Shodlik Hotel - a soulless Soviet hotel that I found surprisingly comfortable and even, somehow, charming. The rooms are warm and clean, the location is central and you can join an odd mix of Russian businessmen and group tourists at the massive breakfast buffet. Best of all, you can pay in Som at the offial rate and save around 30% on your room bill! (See below: logistics for more)
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Chorsu Bazaar - be sure to check the corner of Chorsu between the metro station entry and the main road: there is a huddle of stores selling textiles. Better save your money for Bukhara, but worth visiting to get your first taste of ikat and suzanis!
Bibi Hanum - ikat re-imagined.
Eat / Drink
Chorsu Bazaar - all the chaikhana food you could desire plus food for self-catering at the vegetable market.
Bukhara is without question the most beautiful and interesting of Uzbekistan's Silk Road cities. It is easily explored by foot and we'd recommend you give it at least 2 full days. I could have easily spent a week here. It has a magic mix of majestic architecture, quaint old town, charming cafes and good shopping.
Komil Hotel - centrally located, this small boutique hotel is in an old building with an absolutely stunning 19th century dining room. The rooms are charming and extremely comfortable, and the staff are very friendly and helpful.
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Be sure to bargain hard! The vendors are used to tourists here, and prices are highly inflated. In addition to the shops, you'll find vendors selling on many streets and inside most of the madrassahs.
Bazaar inside Abdul Aziz Khan Madrassah - the sentry at the entrance will try to make you pay for the meagre museum located inside, but just tell him you are looking at the bazaar and they should let you through. Hunt through the small stalls here and you are likely to find some rare treasures. I picked up a vintage Russian faux-ikat textile from a vendor called Bekzod. Ask him to take you to his other shop where he has more treasures, like vintage Russian ceramics and Dervish Coats.
Bazaar on the pavement next to Mir-i-Arab Madrassah - worth trawling through the cheap-looking wares here. Some special pieces stand out.
Tim Abdullakhan Silk Center (just north of Taki Telpak Furushon Bazaar) - a large collection of carpets and textiles in this 16th century covered bazaar. Heaven! The pricing is quite reasonable here, but that made me a little suspicious of the providence of the textiles.
Silk Road Spices Teahouse - stunning, collectible silver and brass samovars. Pricing is quite steep, but the samovars are very special.
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Silk Road Spices Teahouse - set in a closed courtyard with a roof of heavy wooden beams, carpeted walls, upholstery of ikat and gleaming brass samovars which are also for sale. For a very decent price, you can sit here for hours. Wide selection of tea with free refills and snacks of dried fruit and nuts.
Lyabi Hauz - on the north side of Lyabi Hauz is a restaurant with outdoor seating around the ancient pool; probably one of the most beautiful places to relax and eat in Bukhara. The plov is very good and well priced (USD2.50).
In addition to the beautiful mosques and madrassahs that are listed in every guidebook, the following spots are worth visiting:
Museum of Fayzullah Khojaev - a restored mansion of a local politician (who was killed by Stalin), this is a beautiful house filled with treasures from the last century. Definitely worth a visit (see our hand drawn map for the location - at the south side of the Bukhara Old City wall).
Bukhara Photo Gallery - run by a local photographer, the vintage pictures here are wonderful. Best selection of postcards for friends and your diary! (See our hand drawn map for the location - just southwest of Taki Sarrafon Bazaar).
The Registan Ensemble is the highlight of Samarkand - three grand buildings around a central plaza, on a massive scale. And you might just have them all to yourself!
Jahongir B&B - a few minutes walk from the main highlight of Samarkand, with friendly staff and a pleasant central garden.
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Your best option for finding textiles and vintage wares is a half day trip to Urgut Bazaar. See below. If you find something you like, ask the vendors at Urgut Bazaar if they have more stock in Samarkand. I was taken to one vendor's house in the city and shown stock which he hadn't brought to Urgut.
The small kiosk in the garden on the south side of the Ensemble, next to Registan ko-chasi must have the best view of all eateries in the city! Enjoy a tea while gazing over Samarkand's history.
Chaikhana - one of my best chaikhana experiences was had in the teahouse around the corner from Jahongir B&B. Exit the B&B, turn left and then right as if to walk to the Registan Ensemble, and a few meters down is this unassuming chaikhana. Remember to come early, otherwise the plov may be all eaten up!
Urgut is a town about 1.5 hours drive out of Samarkand. If you read about Urgut in the guidebooks, they'll tell you the local bazaar - an enormous site on the outskirts of town - is one of the best places in Uzbekistan to buy suzanis and old Uzbek garments.
Personally, I was a little unimpressed with the quality (I had been hoping to find some real gems of vintage suzanis), but I did find a beautiful, antique paranja. You need to bargain hard and have tough skin to withstand the onslaught of desperate vendors. I still recommend visiting, however, if you have a half-day to spare; it's good fun rummaging through the textiles, and the market itself is interesting to walk around. I also had some of the best plov I ate in Uzbekistan here.
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Go to the back of the market, out the back gate, and you'll find yourself in what looks like a derelict car park. This is where some 20 textile vendors set up ramshackle stalls. Be sure to arrive between around 10 and 2 otherwise you might find the place empty. There are several rows of vendors, mostly selling suzanis and chapans. Provenance and age of many pieces are questionable. I saw lots of suzanis on synthetic fabrics that could well have come from China. The vendors see few buyers here and are quite desperate to sell. You may well find yourself to be the only customer there, so expect a lot of attention! Dig around and you may well find something special. You can try your luck and ask the vendors if they have any more stock back in Samarkand which they can show you.
It's also worth meandering around the main part of the market, selling everything you might need for your Uzbek home.
Eat / Drink
Head to the right side of the market from the parking lot out front and you'll have your pick of Uzbek food stalls - plov, shashlik, samsa. My favourite is the chai khana with massive bowls of plov steaming out front. Don't leave it too late to eat here though; once the plov that has been prepared for that day has sold out, you'll have missed your chance!
This city in the heartland of Ferghana Valley is the centre of ikat weaving in all of Central Asia. It's probably the only place you can find master weavers making hand-woven ikat. The government-run Yodgurlik Silk Factory allows you to make a tour of the entire silk and ikat production processes, which are all done on site - absolutely fascinating and beautiful. This is sure to be one of the highlights of your visit to Uzbekistan!
Other reasons to visit: the journey from Tashkent is beautiful and takes you over high mountain passes; the Kumtipa Sunday Bazaar must be one of the most fascinating markets in Uzbekistan (far, far more interesting than Urgut Bazaar, above); and a visit to Rishtan Ceramics is a wonderful add-on to any visit to the region.
Adras House (Tel: +998 73 254 10 40) - clean and comfortable, this beautiful building belongs to ikat weavers and has been converted from their home and workshop into a simple hotel.
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Kumtipa Sunday Bazaar - an absolute must-visit is this vibrant, bustling Sunday market. You can find everything under the sun here, but the most wonderful section is a large area dedicated to ikat yardage (be warned, the vast majority is machine woven. However, pricing is very reasonable and you'll be spoilt for choice). There are a lot of other great things to see here and you can easily spend a day soaking it all up. Keep an eye out for the handful of vintage textile and ceramic vendors - some will have more stock at their homes so ask to visit if you're interested.
Yodgurlik Silk Factory - another must-visit. At this government run factory, you can see the entire silk production, ikat and carpet making processes - all by hand. It's highly educational, photogenic and colourful. This was one of the highlights of my trip to Uzbekistan. Bring your own translator or guide though.
Rishtan ceramics - artist, Rustam Usmanov, is well-known in the country for his fine painting on ceramics, and while visiting his workshop and on-site museum, you'll see plenty of group-tourists coming in and out. Uzbek ceramics aren't really my thing, but seeing the process, from blob of clay to finished work of art, I found myself falling for the beauty of these pieces and left with a couple of bags of beautiful plates and bowls! Again, you'll need to bring a Russian or Uzbek speaking guide to make the most of it.
Helpful points on logistics
When to travel
You'll find everything you need to know about climate and the tourist season online or in your guidebook, but it's worth mentioning that I traveled in mid-late October and found this to be the perfect time. The weather, though cold and even snowing on one day, was perfect for walking around. Plus, as this was at the end of the peak tourist season, I had many of the sites - some of the most beautiful, UNESCO world heritage sites in the world - all to myself. It's almost unimaginable anywhere else in the world.
It's probably easier than you expect to make your way around, even as an independent traveler.
Inside the cities - in Tashkent, local taxis (actually just private cars) ply the roads and the metro is convenient as well as beautiful. In Samarkand and Bukhara, you can get everywhere worth going by foot. In Margilan, you'll need to arrange for a car; ask the hotel to help you. To get to Urgut, it's easy to find shared taxis; they depart from near the southeast corner of Amir Temur Park. You can walk here from Jahongir B&B.
Travel between cities - inter-city travel is easily managed by shared taxi (most destinations) and train (Samarqand, Bukhara).
Shared taxi - these are simply private vehicles that ply fixed routes between cities. You'll need to find the local starting point in the city you depart from, then ask around for taxis going to wherever you want to go. Once you find the right taxi, you'll need to wait until enough customers have come (they usually want 3-4 people to travel together so they can make a better profit from the trip). You pay a premium for the front seat. I had to wait two hours for the trip from Tashkent to Bukhara for the final passenger to arrive. Even if you don't know a word of Russian or Uzbek, the words "taxi" and your destination are enough to get you where you want to go. You'll find people will be very helpful if you need assistance! Shared taxi is the best way to get to Margilan. They should drop you at your hotel when you arrive at your destination.
Train - your hotel should be able to arrange train tickets if you give at least one days notice and your passport. For this they'll take a small fee, but the pricing for the tickets is very reasonable. The trains are the best way to travel between Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand. They're very comfortable - on the train from Bukhara to Samarqand there was a regular flow of delicious mint tea for a couple of cents per glass. This is also a great way to meet local travelers, who will be very curious about you and probably try to strike up a conversation. You'll be surprised how far a few words of Uzbek and hand language can take you!
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