Uzbekistan’s Big Three: Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva

Days 80-99: 07/06/19 – 26/06/19
Locations: Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva – Uzbekistan
Miles driven: 1074

Rather unintentionally, we spent a significant amount of time in Uzbekistan – much longer than any of the other countries so far on our trip. This is largely due to the fact that I flew home for two weeks to attend a wedding. Chris therefore needed to be close to an airport on two specific dates, and after doing a lot of researching of different flight options, the best one appeared to be a return from the same airport – Tashkent. Chris stayed with the car whilst I was away, and his parents flew out for a holiday and to keep him company. Both myself and Chris’ parents wanting to see Uzbekistan’s “Big Three”, Chris agreed (somewhat reluctantly) to do the same two week trip twice.

Our route began in Uzbekistan’s capital city, Tashkent, and then followed the old silk road to three infamous cities: Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva.

Our trip: Tashkent (A) – Samarkand (B) – Bukhara (C) – Khiva (D)

So far on our trip, there have only been subtle differences between countries from one side of the border to the other. The area surrounding the borders appear to be a kind of amalgamation of the two countries either side. Uzbekistan differed for one main reason: the cars. Throughout Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan, despite there being a high number of Ladas on the road, there has been variation in the cars (colour, make, model). The second we crossed from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan we were surrounded by a sea of Chevrolets. White Chevrolets in fact. Even more specific than that, 49.999% of the cars on the road were white Chevrolet Sparks, and 49.999% of them were white Chevrolet Cobalts. If Natalie didn’t stand out before, she certainly did now.

For a more detailed description of this crossing, and all of the border crossings we have experienced on our trip, take a look here

The Soviet era Hotel Uzbekistan, Tashkent

It is not uncommon in England to see cars with sunshades attached to the back passenger windows, especially cars with young children. With its dry, unimaginably hot summers, Uzbekistan cars have similar, however here, the shades are thick blankets, and to keep the car extra cool they are placed on every single window except the front windscreen (including the rear windscreen, front passenger window and drivers side window). Wing mirrors, indicators, rear view mirrors are all just there for show. Chris’ thumb quickly became permanently attached to the horn, and for a month I virtually spent every second in the car in the brace position making regular squeaks and squeals. Anybody that has ever been in a car with my Mum as a passenger will be able to imagine it well. To make matters worse, we are fully aware that Uzbekistan will not take the top spot for country with the worst driving – that is still to come.

Minor Mosque, Tashkent

As we checked into our hostel in Tashkent, we met Oybek. Oybek lived in Tashkent and couldn’t believe that we had driven from England, and immediately started asking us about English football. Putting our country to shame, we had to admit that neither of us are football fans. Fascinated by foreign countries, Oybek’s knowledge about English football, current affairs, and the royal family was amazing – he knew far more about our own country than we did! He offered to give us a tour, and keen to see what the locals considered the highlight of Tashkent, we could not refuse. Our afternoon with Oybek was brilliant – seeing multiple Mosques and Madrassah’s, the oldest Quran in the world, having a traditional Uzbek lunch of Plov (a delicious rice and lamb dish), and finishing the day off with a less traditional ice cream in the shopping mall.

Oybek: wonderful person, brilliant tour guide, not so great photographer
Our favourite Metro stop in Tashkent – the Cosmonaut station
Hard to believe this is an underground station!

From Tashkent, we drove to Samarkand, ready to be amazed by the sights of the ancient silk road. Having read over and over again that these cities are unmissable, I was excited to see what we had in store for the next couple of weeks. As expected, our first day set the scene for what was to come, however, the scene itself was not quite how we’d imagined.

At the heart of Samarkand is the Registan, (a complex of three Madrassahs, built in the 15th and 17th centuries). It is undeniably stunning, however we were somewhat disappointed. The entrance prices listed in our 2018 guidebook had more than trebled, souvenir stalls dominated every inch of ground, and the restored buildings would have been better described as replicas than restorations. Many of the ancient, highly spiritual, buildings were filled with tourists taking photos, sat between huge roads full of white Chevrolets, and next to modern hotels with identical tile-work, making it impossible to decipher which buildings were hundreds of years old, and which were built within the last five years. I felt that much of the spirituality was lost by the fact that we could go into the religious buildings wearing shorts and t-shirts; I did not have to cover my head, shoulders or knees. It was difficult to imagine what this city was like in its prime, all those years ago.

Rooms that once upon a time were student digs, are now scarf shops – The Registan, Samarkand

Our guidebook recommended to visit the Registan both during the day and night, adding that it may be possible to watch a ‘light show’ that is put on most evenings. Later that night we returned, and sat on the steps reading our books waiting to see if the show was taking place that evening. A few minutes after we sat down, a man came over to us and asked if we minded chatting with him so that he could practice his English. We said yes with some scepticism, feeling that this would quickly turn into some kind of selling scheme, or ‘follow me down the road to my brilliant carpet/coffee/ceramics shop’. It was a nice surprise to realise that we were wrong, Hilol genuinely did come here every evening to practice his English in preparation for an exam, and it was clearly working – his English was great.

Inside the Registan – Samarkand

The time went by quickly whilst chatting to Hilol, and soon it was time for the show. If Walt Disney made silk road cities, Samarkand would be the result, and the light show was the cherry on top of this rather bizarre cake. The show was a 20 minute extravaganza of lights, music, and animations all projected onto the 17th century Tilya-Kori Madrassah. The only thing missing was fireworks.

The Registan – Samarkand

During our conversation with Hilol, he told us about the infamous Samarkand bread. It is the best in all the land he said, and can only be made in Samarkand – even bakers who take the exact ingredients from Samarkand to another place cannot replicate the delicious texture, taste, doughiness of the Samarkand bread. It needs the magic of Samarkand. Naturally we had to try it.

Throughout our trip so far, we have cooked for ourselves almost every evening and shopped in supermarkets full of locals, therefore paying local prices. Knowing that we had been paying about 1000 Som (£0.10) for a loaf of bread, we could not believe our ears when told at the market that a loaf would be 15,000 Som (£1.39). We shopped around and reluctantly settled for a loaf costing 5000 Som (£0.50) – maybe the best bread in all the land is worth paying 5 times more. We also acknowledged that when in tourist-land, one must pay tourist prices. We found a beautiful shady park to sit and enjoy our lunch.

We were quickly thankful that we had found such a picturesque place for lunch, as it was a much needed distraction from the densest bread in all the land. We shared it with a small puppy who had been hanging around looking hopeful. After giving it a sniff, even the puppy decided to give it a miss.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Samarkand

Next stop: Bukhara. Now that we knew what to expect, Bukhara was more enjoyable for us than Samarkand had been. On the short walk from our hostel to the centre of the city we wound our way through narrow streets, watching people go by their daily business, working hard in the ridiculous heat. In the evenings, the central square was thriving, with lots of cafes, and a small green grassy area with some benches. The square was a great place to visit and people watch throughout the day but even more so in the evenings once the sun had gone down and it was cooler.

Miri-i Arab Madrassah, Bukhara – one of the few that is still functioning as a Madrassah rather than just a tourist destination
Chor Minor, Bukhara

The hostel we stayed in was a popular spot for overlanders, and we spent our evenings chatting to others, looking at their vehicles, swapping stories and getting recommendations for future destinations on our trip. Despite living in a confined space for nearly four months now, we have yet to get bored of each other’s company. Nonetheless it made a nice change to be chatting to people other than ourselves without language barriers.

The Happy English in Bukhara

The final destination on our two week loop was Khiva. The road conditions were becoming increasingly worse, and we were told that diesel was difficult to come by outside of Tashkent. From Bukhara we would be able to get back to Tashkent without needing to re-fuel, however by adding the return trip to Khiva, we would need to find diesel to make it back. The journey back to Tashkent from Khiva involved passing Bukhara again, so we decided we would leave Natalie in Bukhara, and get the train from Bukhara to Khiva, having a week as backpackers.

Entrance gates to Khiva city

We searched online to find the train times, and managed to buy the tickets fairly easily. Despite the internet telling us that it was possible to get a train directly from Bukhara to Khiva, at the ticket office we were told that the trains only go as far as Urgench – a town just over 20 miles away. The next day, we boarded our boiling hot train. It was pretty modern looking and yet there did not appear to be air conditioning. A few minutes into the journey, an official looking man came over and asked Chris if he wanted to upgrade to first class (we were in economy), where there would be air conditioning, for around £1 extra. Before agreeing to this, Chris had the foresight to look at the first class cabin. He was taken to a carriage with slightly bigger chairs, but still no air conditioning. We stayed in economy. Two minutes later, the air conditioning in the economy carriage was turned on – clearly they had sold enough first class tickets to gullible passengers and they could now turn it on. As the train pulled into Urgench five hours later, we checked with the guard what the next stop would be. His answer: Khiva. The internet was right, the people selling the train tickets were wrong, we stayed on the train.

Lunch in Khiva

Khiva was our favourite city of the ‘big three’. The central part of the town is a walled area, which is completely pedestrianised. It was still full to the brim of hotels, souvenir stalls and tourists. However, the lack of cars, the hustle and bustle of street sellers, and the traditional looking buildings, gave us an insight to how the city may have looked way back when. After buying an entrance ticket, many of the attractions (although not quite as many as they claimed) were included within the one ticket, and we spent three days walking around the city, soaking up the sights, visiting numerous museums, mausoleums, mosques and madrassahs whilst only ever a couple of minutes away from our hotel for those all important air conditioning breaks. The city still had not quite lived up to my original expectations, but this was by far the closest and the best, and if we had only been able to visit one of the three, this (with hindsight) would have been my chosen city.

Kalta Minor Minaret, Khiva

On our final day in Khiva, we walked back to the train station to try to change our train tickets from Urgench-Bukhara to Khiva-Bukhara. Once again, we were told that a train from Khiva to Urgench was not possible – this time due to “technical difficulties”. We were told that our train had been cancelled and we could exchange our current tickets for a train that left later in the day, and was even slightly cheaper. After our experience of our first journey, we weren’t convinced that the train wasn’t running, but the ticket sales people were adamant, and we figured that even with a taxi from Urgench to Khiva, we would still be saving money with our cheaper train tickets.

Walking along the top of Khiva’s city walls at sunset

The taxi ride was just over 20 miles. Google maps told us it is a 40 minute drive, but now in the not so trusty hands of the Uzbek taxi driver, we made it there in 20 minutes. Waiting at the train station we noticed that unlike our trip to Khiva, there were not many other tourists waiting for our train. As we boarded the train the mystery about the lack of tourists, cheaper ticket price, and longer journey time all became very clear. We were taking the slow, cheap train. This time we had no air conditioning, bench seats with no backs, and were sat underneath another passenger’s bed.

It was a long six hours, and when we finally arrived back in Bukhara we were happy to be reunited with Natalie and back in control of our own journey. We headed back to Tashkent, ready for my flight back to Blighty, and Chris’ parents to arrive so that he could do it all over again.

A quick trip back to England to fulfil bridesmaids duties
Congratulations Mrs Payne!

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