Central Asia Overland – Au revoir, Uzbekistan?

Well, I can’t say Uzbekistan has really lived up to expectations, but perhaps that’s the cumulative effects of a four week tour talking… together with rather rose-tinted expectations in the first place.

Although modern Tashkent was a welcome change, and the overnight train to Urgench a very pleasant way to cross the Kyzyl Kum desert, the main historical sights – Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand – were each disappointing in their own ways.

Khiva can only be a ghost of its former self – the whole of the old town has been conserved and restored into a shadow of a city, resembling EuroDisney on a quiet Tuesday. No one really lives there anymore, and we wandered around the sanitised streets avoiding end of season souvenir sellers rather than the genuine detritus of daily life. Hard to believe it was once the capital of the Khanate of Khiva.

Moving onto Bukhara at least offered a slightly more living experience of an ancient Silk Road city, but here too many of the main sights – the domed bazaars, the magnificent Medressas and the potentially lovely Lyab-i Hauz (this is a good map of Bukhara) – were given over to souvenir stalls and tourist troughs. Oh, and there really really isn’t anything worth the 2000 sum photo fee at the Ark citadel.

Samarkand should probably have been the highlight – I’ve wanted to see the Registan for years. It might be the heart of old Samarkand, but I found it sadly soulless – the central area was taken up by a temporary wooden stage and the mosques and medressas that make up the ‘ensemble’ entirely given over to souvenir shops. I much preferred Russian Samarkand, probably because I had no rose-hued expectations. As for the other main sights – the Bibi Khanum mosque, the Gur-e Amir and the Shah-i-Zinda – these have been almost entirely rebuilt, such that not so much as a whiff of romance or history remains. I like my sites served up in a rather more realistic state, and if that means ruins rather than restoration, so be it. I don’t mind maintenance, but not restoration requiring (or resulting in) a complete rebuild with modern materials.

Mind you, I still managed to take a lot of photos; the architecture is amazing and the geometrist in me loves the tile work.

The other feature of this part of the tour was a night at the yurt camp near Yangikasgan, and a (15 minute) camel ride. This too was all a bit too touristy (and male) for my taste – although – again – my reaction says more about my unrealistic expectations as it does about the experience itself.

So no, having now been I don’t feel the need to return. But I might pick up my patchworking again.