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FOUR 'STANS' OF
CENTRAL ASIA

My September 2022 holiday

Contents

  • Introduction
  • Days 1 & 2: Getting There And Almaty, Kazakhstan
  • Day 3: Canyon & Lake In Kazakhstan
  • Day 4: A Strange Lake In Kazakhstan
  • Day 5: City Tour Of Almaty, Kazakhstan
  • Day 6: Travel To Lake Issyk-Kol In Kyrgyzstan
  • Day 7: South Side of lake Issyk-Kol In Kyrgyzstan
  • Day 8: Karakol & Arashan In Kyrgyzstan
  • Day 9: Back To Bishkek In Kyrgyzstan
  • Day 10: Bishkek To Osh To Fergana
  • Day 11: Fergana And Margilon In Uzbekistan
  • Day 12: Rishton, Kokand & Tashkent In Uzbekistan
  • Day 13: Khojand In Tajikistan
  • Day 14: Istaravshan In TajikistaN
  • Day 15: From Tajikistan Back To Uzbekistan
  • Day 16: Samarkand In Uzbekistan
  • Day 17: Shakhrisabz In Uzbekistan
  • Day 18: Bukhara In Uzbekistan
  • Day 19: Around Bukhara In Uzbekistan
  • Day 20: Still Bukhara In Uzbekistan
  • Day 21: The Road To Khiva In Uzbekistan
  • Day 22: Khiva In Uzbekistan
  • Day 23: Around Khiva In Uzbekistan
  • Day 24: Karakalpakstan In Uzbekistan
  • Days 25 & 26: Tashkent In Uzbekistan And Home
  • Conclusion

  • INTRODUCTION

    “The chief peculiarity of Muslim artistic expression is the invention and deployment, especially in the field of architecture, of a highly characteristic artistic language of a geometric and floral type verging on the abstract.”

    “Islamic Art” by Luca Mozzati

    Throughout my life, I have been fortunate to have had many opportunities to travel and I have visited a total of 80 countries all around the world. But this trip – organised by the travel company Voyages Jules Verne (VJV) [click here] – was different. It was not my furthest or my longest trip: that would be the one to Australia and New Zealand in 2013 when I was away for 31 days. But, given the location (Central Asia), the length (26 days) and my age (I am now 74), I expected it to be the most challenging. 

    As the travel company put it, the region is: “Perhaps amongst some of the world’s least visited and least well-known destinations, making this a true journey of discovery”. The briefing referred to “remote and, in part, unsophisticated destinations”, hotels that may be “simple and unpretentious”, occasional “water or electricity shortages”, food that “can be repetitive”, and “some long journeys, some on uneven roads with only limited opportunities for comfort breaks”. And, of course, you could drink the water anywhere. 

    We will be away 26 days and make 9 flights. We will stay in 18 hotels: 12 of them for one night only and 6 for all of two nights.  Although VJV has been operating in the region for many years, this is the company’s first five-nation tour. Sounds like fun, huh? 

    We were going to visit five ‘stans’ (the word ‘stan’ means country): Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.  The only one that I had visited before was Uzbekistan in 2006 so, by the end of this trip, I expected the total number of countries that I have visited to be 84. Visas are not required for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan but are necessary for Tajikistan (payment in advance of £50 to VJV) and Turkmenistan (payment at the border of $100). 

    All five of these ‘stans’ were previously members of the USSR but, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, each became an independent state. All of them are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, economically underdeveloped, and politically illiberal. But, of course, each is different.

    Kazakhstan is an enormous country, the ninth largest in the world and over 10 times the size of the UK. It is the largest landlocked country on earth and the world’s largest Muslim-majority country by land area. Yet it has a population of only 19M and therefore one of the lowest population densities in the world. Since 1997, the capital – which used to be Almaty – has been  Astana which in 2019 was renamed Nur-Sultan. It is rich in oil, gas and mineral resources which makes it the most economically advanced of the ‘stans’. Officially it is a democracy but it has an authoritarian government with a poor human rights record.

    Kyrgyzstan is a similar size to the UK but with a much smaller population of just 6M.  The capital is Bishkek. The country is probably the most democratic in the region, following the Tulip Revolution of 2005 which overthrew Askar Akayev. it has a semi-presidential political system with a free news media and an active political opposition. 

    Tajikistan is smaller than the UK and has a much smaller population of about 10M. The capital is Dushanbe. Mountains cover more than 90% of the country which has minimal resources. Following a civil war from 1991-1997, it has had peaceful elections but the same president since 1994 and one party holding the vast majority of seats in the parliament. A major source of income is remittances from abroad. 

    Turkmenistan is twice the size of the UK but the population is a mere 6M, the lowest of the Central Asian republics. The capital is Ashgabat. Since independence, the country has been ruled by three repressive totalitarian regimes with poor human rights records. The country possesses the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas and substantial oil resources. It is the least-visited of the ‘stans’. 

    Uzbekistan is almost twice the size of the UK with a population 35M (about half that of the UK but almost as large as the other four ‘stans’ combined). it is one of only two double landlocked nations on earth (the other is tiny Liechtenstein). The capital is Tashkent. Following the death of the totalitarian leader Islam Karimov in 2016, the country has embarked on political reforms which have improved relations with neighbouring nations. The country is a major producer and exporter of cotton. It is the most-visited of the ‘stans’. 

    DAYS 1 & 2: GETTING THERE AND ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN

    I knew that this trip would be challenging but I didn’t expect the challenges to begin before we even  reached the region.  However, the evening before departure, we were notified that our UK Tour Manager had just gone down with covid so that we would be dependent solely on local guides.  On Day 1 of our 26-day trip, to reach the starting point of the tour, there were two Turkish Airline flights: one from London to Istanbul and then another from Istanbul to Almaty. 

    The first flight of just over 3 hours went smoothly. Once at Istanbul airport, the good news was that it is a super modern facility opened in 2019 – although free WiFi is only available for an hour after scanning one’s passport details. The bad news was that the onward flight was delayed by two hours turning a three-hour wait into a five-hour one. The second flight was just over four and a half hours.

    We were met at Almaty airport – a wholly inadequate facility – by our local guide, a Russian called Svetlana, and driven the short distance to the 30-storey Ritz-Carlton Hotel which is as good as any Western hotel. Indeed it was so modern that the rooms had sliding panels in the drawers with a fixed electronic pad that controlled the lights, the curtains, the air conditioning and probably all sorts of other things that I never discovered.

    It was now 8 am local time.  Since I had left home at 7 am and Kazakhstan is five hours ahead of UK time, the journey door to door had been 20 hours. After a quick breakfast, it was time for bed. 

    Kazakhstan is about the size of Western Europe and, as a single entity with defined borders, it was an invention of the Soviet regime in the 1920s. During the Cold War, the USSR decided that the republic was so empty and remote that they used it as the chief nuclear bomb testing ground. When the USSR collapsed, it was the last of the Soviet republics to declare independence. 

    Although Kazaks – who ethnically split from Uzbeks in the 15th century –  form two-thirds of the population, it is a multi-ethnic country with a substantial Russian minority. The dominant language is still Russian, but the Kazak language is in the process of moving from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. 

    Our first day in the country – Day 2 of the tour – was just a resting day to catch up on our jet lag. For those who wanted it, there was a free extra option of a demonstration of falconry which I attended. Then, in the evening, we had our first group meal – there were eight of us – round the corner from the hotel at a restaurant called “Navat” which served us a selection of local foods, all of which were tasty.

    We would be back in Almaty in a couple of days for a proper look at the city. 

    DAY 3: CANYON & LAKE IN KAZAKHSTAN

    After a day and a night in Almaty to rest and recover from our jet lag, on Day 3 we left the city for two days to visit some nature locations in the very south-east of this huge country. 

    Our guide Svetlana never stopped talking while we were on the road and we learned so much about the country and the people. Her personal story is symbolic of post-Soviet Central Asia. Her mother’s family was Ukrainian kulak and banished to Sakhalin Island, while her father’s family was Don Cossack kulaks who were sent to Siberia. Thank you, comrade Stalin. They grew up in the Soviet Union before finding themselves in independent Kazakhstan. On our road journey, we passed close to China and Kyrgyzstan and went through a Uyghur village. It is a complicated region of the world. 

    Leaving our Almaty hotel at 7.30 am, we travelled around 200 km (125 miles) to arrive at our first destination just over 3 hours later (there was a comfort stop at a service station that served coffee). Our destination was the spectacular Charyn Canyon where we spent three and a half hours. The canyon consists of rocks varying in age from 23M to 60M years old. Today the canyon is 154 km (95 miles) in length with cliff sides of up to 300 metres (almost 1,000 feet) high.

    We walked the 1.3 km trial along the top, walked all the way back, and then took the 2.3 km trail on the floor of the canyon all the way to the rushing Charyn River, so we covered around 5 km (3 miles). The lower part of the canyon is known as the Valley of the Castles because of the striated and coloured cliff faces on either side. The weather was glorious with a temperature of around 40C made bearable by a breeze. But, in the summer, the temperature can hit 50C. Understandably we all took an open lorry back (thankfully with seats) from the river to the start of the trails and found some shelter for a picnic lunch.

    Our next destination was a further 100 km (60 miles) and took almost another two hours on increasingly winding roads. This time our destination was the Kolsai Lakes. In fact, we only viewed the nearest and deepest (70 metres). We were higher now so the weather was milder and the views were simply beautiful. After a coffee, I took a walk half way round the large lake, during which I befriended a Kazak couple who wanted to video me (no problem) and discuss English football (a subject on which I am totally ignorant). 

    We were not returning to Almaty yet because we had another local sight to visit, so we spent the night in the very simple but clean Alban guesthouse in a tiny village called Saty. Ten of us - the group plus driver & guide – shared two toilets and two showers. Here the WiFi was so slow it reminded me of the days of dial-up when we watched that blue bar edging barely perceptively to the right.

    DAY 4: A STRANGE LAKE IN KAZAKHSTAN

    It was an odd night in the Alban guesthouse and many of the group did not sleep so well because of the regular barking of local dogs, the early crowing of the village cocks, and some members taking nighttime showers. I pride myself on being able to sleep anywhere at anytime but a combination of jet-lag and animal noises had me awake for a while.

    Today’s excursion (Day 4) was to a very particular location called Kaindy Lake. This is so remote that it could only be accessed by four-wheeled drive vehicles, so the group split into two Toyota 4WD land cruisers in which we swerved around ruts and rocks, splashed through streams, and ploughed up hills for a fun drive of 45 minutes. Once out of the vehicles, things became even more challenging. The paths down to the lake are very steep and very gravelly and several of the group took a tumble.  But what a sight: both at water level and from the hillside above.

    Kaindy Lake was formed by nature after an earthquake in 1911 dislodged a huge block of mountain which blocked the river and created the lake in which earlier trees still make a ghostly appearance. Located around 2,000 metres (6,500 feet) above sea level, surrounded by huge spruce trees, and with the silver trucks of dead spruce rising above the water surface like the masts of sunken ships, this is truly a magical experience. 

    We were at Kiandy Lake for an hour and a half, following which we returned to our guesthouse for a quick lunch, before leaving Saty village to return to Almaty.  It was a journey of almost four and a half hours, but we stopped briefly to view the Black Canyon and to have a comfort break.  

    Some of us wanted to take the opportunity to have a sleep or read a book, but our guide Svetlana appealed to us to ask her anything about Kazakhstan and our Scottish member requested information on the country’s experience of ice hockey! His other questions kept us going till Almaty where we were staying at the same place as previously: the luxurious Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

    Dinner was also at a familiar location: “Navat” restaurant. This time we had salmon as the main course (the Kazaks do love their meat) and three members of staff put on a short dance show. 

      DAY 5: CITY TOUR OF ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN

    Our last day in Kazakhstan (Day 5) started with a surprise when one of our group Nova announced that overnight her partner Charles, who had never had covid, had just tested positive for the virus.  The tour organisers decided that, while the rest of the group would still fly to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, Charles & Nova would need to travel there by road and then isolate at our hotel there until he tested negative. 

    So, for the rest of us, the day was a tour of the city on a day when the temperature was 36C.  Almaty, which is located in the south-east corner of the country, was previously called Alma-Ata (Father of Apples) but, following independence, it was renamed to be closer in name to the original Silk Road settlement of Almatu. It used to be the capital but, in 1998, this was moved to Astana in the centre of the country which was subsequently renamed Nur-Sultan. This is all part of the ubiquitous post-Soviet rebranding in this region.

    However, Almaty remains the largest city in the country with a population of about 2M.  It is a surprisingly picturesque city with plenty of trees and overlooked by the Zailiysky Alatau mountains. It has only has one tube line with just 11 stations. 

    The tour started with a visit to the Central State Museum where pride of place goes to a large replica of the Golden Man – the national symbol of Kazakhstan – who was a 3rd or 4th century warrior whose gold-clan remains were uncovered in 1969 and are now located in the new capital. Next we took a cable car – or “the rope way” as a sign suggested in English – up the Kok Tobe (Green Hill) which affords splendid views over the city as well as offering a 2007 set of bronze statues of the four Beatles. 

    Back down from the cable car, we had lunch at a restaurant called “Assorti”. Afterwards we drove down Freedom Street (formerly Lenin Street) to Panfilov Park (named after an Almaty infantry unit who died fighting outside Moscow in 1941). At the heart of the square is the beautiful candy-coloured Zenkov Cathedral which was built between 1904-1906 entirely of wood (which is how it survived the earthquake of 1911).

    Much of the square, as its name suggests, has military connotations with grandiose Soviet-designed monuments commemorating the dead of the Civil War in 1917-1920 and the Second World War in 1941-1945 plus a huge statue portraying the 28 Panfilov Heroes and an eternal flame of honour. Rather prosaically, we even made a short visit to the Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments which is located in a 1908 wooden building in the square.

    It was time to say goodbye to Svetlana and make the short flight of 30 minutes from Almaty in Kazakhstan to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan – the second country on our tour of the ‘stans’. Here our local guide was Olga – a Russian whose family has lived In Kyrgyzstan for five generations. Our hotel was the Hyatt, an excellent place, if not as opulent as the Ritz-Carlton in Almaty. 

    DAY 6: TRAVEL TO LAKE ISSYK-KOL IN KYRGYZSTAN

    Now in another country: Kyrgyzstan is a thinly-populated nation bisected by mountain ranges and the north-south divide has always bedevilled the country’s politics. Since independence, there have been three revolutions (2005, 2010, 2020) and six presidents. The Kyrgyz language has two dialects, one in the north influenced by Russian and the other to the south shaped by Uzbek. In fact, Russian is the everyday language of all educated citizens and, like the other countries of Central Asia, emotionally most people still identify with Russia. 

    Now in another city: modern Bishkek was founded in 1878 on the site of a Russian garrison. From 1926 to 1991, the city’s Soviet name was Frunze, honouring locally-born Mikhail Frunze, a Russian Civil War commander. Today it is a city of 1M. Before leaving town, we had a quick look at the main squares, viewing the soaring national flagpole and new equestrian statue of Mighty Manas, observing the changing of the guard with slowly goose-stepping soldiers, and finally observing the large statue of Lenin opposite the single-chamber parliament. 

    For the next two days, our itinerary would be focused on the Issyk-Kol Lake, so on Day 6 we drove east on a road which early on actually took us into and out of neighbouring Kazakhstan for a few minutes. The quality of the roads was terrible but we made steady progress on our journey of 330 kms (200 miles) with one short comfort stop at a service station (the toilets were out of order) and an hour and a half for lunch in a family home in Bokonbaievo (there were no adequate restaurants anywhere on the route). 

    So we left the hotel at 8.30 am and finally reached our overnight accommodation at 3.40 pm. We were staying at an artist colony at Kadji-Sal just 10 minutes walk from Lake Issyk-Kol.  Unlike Saty village in Kazakhstan, each room had a toilet and shower and decent WiFi but, at the time of our arrival, there was an unannounced absence of electricity locally (it returned at 5 pm). Dinner was at the guesthouse with a large group of Israeli tourists.

    DAY 7: SOUTH SIDE OF LAKE ISSYK-KOL IN KYRGYZSTAN

    Lake Issyk-Kol is over 170 km (105 miles) long and  up to 70 km (44 miles) across and lies at an altitude of over 1600 metres (over 5,000 feet). It is not only one of the world’s few remaining ancient lakes, estimated to be 25 million years old, but it is also the second largest alpine lake on the planet.

    The name means ‘hot lake’ which comes from a combination of extreme depth, thermal activity, and mild salinity and this mildness ensures that the lake never freezes even in the fierce winters. The backdrop in the north is the snow-dappled Ala-Too mountains. The lake runs west-east. The northern shore has shallower beaches and warmer water, but it is much more expensive than the southern shore which is therefore known as “the wild shore”. 

    Our first full day in the area (Day 7) was spent visiting locations on the south side of the lake. First, we viewed Skazka (Faireytale) Canyon which has red hills of every size and shape. There are high and low walking routes and our group took (part of) the low route (some members of the group had walking difficulties). Then, just south of a village called Jeti-Oguz, we drove into a gorge called Broken Heart and Seven Bulls which indicates the shapes of the mountains to be found there.

    From now on, the route was even tougher for our four-wheel drive coach but our driver was not fazed.  So we ploughed on up rutted and rock-strewn ‘roads’ twisting and turning to avoid obstacles and crossing the fast-flowing Jeti-Oguz River. 

    Out destination was a yurt camp located at a height of round 2,000 metres (7,000 feet). Since leaving the hotel, it had taken us four and a half hours to reach the camp with no stops for toilets or coffees.  So we were pleased to make use of the camp’s facilities and enjoyed lunch in a yurt with four dumplings as the main course. 

    Finally our guide Olga – a fit young woman – invited the group to walk back as far at the first of the five bridges which apparently was 4 km (2.5 miles). Only one person actually made it as far as the first bridge and that walk took 70 minutes. Yes, it was me.

    On the six previous nights of our Central Asia trip, we had only had one night at that hotel each time.  But now we had checked into the Karagat Hotel in the town of Karakol where we would spend all of two nights.  Suitcases might actually be unpacked this time and some clothes washing may be attempted. Dinner was at a popular and lively restaurant called “Dastorkon”. Astonishingly one of the group met an English man whom he used to know years ago. 

    DAY 8: KARAKOL & ARASHAN IN KYRGZSTAN

    Now in Karakol, we started Day 8 with a quick look around. The town was founded in 1869 and named Karakol meaning ‘black hand’ because of the working inhabitants. In Soviet times, it was called Przhevalsk after the explorer Nikolai Przhevalsk whose last expedition ended here. It is an indication of how sparsely populated is Kyrgyzstan that today Karakol with its population of just 75,000 is the country’s fourth largest town.  

    We viewed two major buildings. The Holy Trinity Cathedral was finished in 1895 and built of wood to enable it to survive earthquakes (the five onion domes were removed by the Bolsheviks but restored some three decades later). The Dungan Mosque was founded in 1910 and closed for worship between 1933 and 1943, but managed to survive (the other eight mosques in the town were destroyed by the Bolsheviks). The Dungan community of Chinese Muslims fled to Kyrgyzstan in 1877 and the mosque looks more like a Chinese Buddhist temple.

    The rest of the day was occupied with a visit to a hot spring development called Altyn-Arashan (Golden Spa). This is set in a glorious alpine valley located at a height of 2,500 metres (8,000 feet) with the Arashan river running along the whole route there and the Palatka Peak looming over the southern end. The problem is reaching and returning from this picture-perfect sight.

    We needed a special Soviet-era military vehicle called a GAZ 66 and we were thrown around constantly as the vehicle edged slowly over stones of every size bumping violently literally every second or two. It took us  two and a half hours to reach the valley and then a further three hours to descend and we only spent 40 minutes at our destination where we had a packed lunch and found a suitable bush in lieu of a toilet. 

    Like yesterday, we were offered the opportunity to walk part of the way down. This time our vehicle stopped regularly to pick up members of the group who felt that they had walked as far as they wished. I walked two separate sections totalling about one hour, but the altitude and the scree meant that this hour was enough for me. 

    We had been told by our guide Olga: “It is a kind of extreme adventure”. She was not kidding. For all of us, this was the roughest ride of our lives and we had to wonder whether it was really appropriate for individuals of our age (up to 77). But it had indeed been an adventure and the views were superb.  Dinner was a quiet affair. It was at the hotel and we were the only people in the restaurant. 

    DAY 9: BACK TO BISHKEK IN KYRGYZSTAN

    After two days on the south side of Lake Issyk-Kok, today (Day 9), we were returning to the capital Bishkek. The day did not go according to the programme but it was interesting nevertheless.

    The programme had us breaking the journey half way round the northern side of the lake to visit a complex called Rukh Ordo near Cholpon-Ata which depicts Kyrgyz legends, but the site was being visited that day by foreign delegations and so was closed to the public.  Instead Olga suggested a visit to a location just outside Karakol: the museum, monument and grave of the Russian explorer Pristina Przhevalsk (1839-1888) whose name was used by the Soviets to rename Karakol for the communist period. The museum has a giant map filling a whole wall which depicts the routes of his four expeditions to various parts of Central Asia when it was largely unknown outside the region.

    We still travelled along the northern side of Lake Issyk-Kol and we still stopped in Cholpon-Ata for lunch. But afterwards Olga proposed a short addition to the programme: a quick look at what she called “the museum of the open sky”. This is an extensive field of glacial boulders, many featuring petroglyphs, especially from the period of the Scythian era (7th C to 3rd C BC). 

    We had left Karakol at 8.45 am and were back at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Bishkek at 7.10 pm – a journey  of 420 km (260 miles) which took us ten and half hours (but with four stops). At the hotel, we reconnected with group members Charles & Nova whom we had left four days ago and were pleased to find that Charles was now recovered from his bout of covid. 

    However, over dinner at the hotel, the oldest member of the group almost passed out and then repeatedly vomited. An ambulance was called and he was put on a drip.  I always knew that this was going to be a challenging trip …

    DAY 10: BISHKEK TO OSH TO FERGANA

    It was Day 10 and we were one third into our tour. In Bishkek, we were up at 4 am and out at 5 am for an early morning flight to Osh in the very west of Kyrgyzstan.

    On the minibus to the airport, it sounded as if another challenge was on the horizon when we were told that domestic flights had a weight limit of 15 kg for the hold and 5 kg for the cabin with excess weight needing to be be paid for. In fact, the check-in clerk loaded one suitcase on top of another until he had two piles of four cases each and then declared that the group as a whole did not exceed the limit (fortunately our guide Olga only had hand luggage so her 15 kg went towards the group limit).

    The flight to Osh  – a city with an incredible history of 3,000 years – only lasted 40 minutes which gave us time to view a few features of the area around the main square – including a giant statue of Lenin with outstretched arm – and to visit a tea house – full of old men passing the time. Then we said farewell to Olga and walked through the  border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Our luggage was checked a couple of times and our passport was checked endless times, so this took an hour.

    On the other side of the border, we met our guide for all our time in Uzbekistan: Timur – half Uzbek and half Tartar. We were very pleased to find that, in contrast to the basic minibus in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, we had a large modern coach, but it did not have a toilet on board and we were advised that there would be no toilet facilities until we reached our destination, so we had to use the very basic facilities at the border control.

    Uzbekistan is an hour behind Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and it took us almost two and a half hours to drive through the Fergana Valley – the most populous, the most fertile and the most industrial region in the country – to reach the city of Fergana. Here we started with lunch at a restaurant called “UHU” before checking into the Terra Nova hotel which was something of a disappointment from what we had expected.

    Later in the afternoon, Timur took the group out for an hour’s walk in the city but there was nothing to see plus the weather was now overcast and spitting. Fergana is the valley’s least ancient and least Uzbek city. 

    Then, in the evening, we went out together for dinner in a restaurant called “Legenda” which was refreshingly different in that, instead of four overly-large courses of food which was our constant experience for both lunch and dinner in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, we had three moderately-sized courses and, for a change, the main course was vegetarian.

    DAY 11: FERGANA AND MARGILON IN UZBEKISTAN

    On our first full day in Uzbekistan (Day 11), we looked around two of the towns of the Fergana Valley. Our local guide was a woman named Madina who unfortunately had a terribly strong accent, a monotonous tone, and an insistence on reciting a contain stream of detailed information. Yet, when I asked her about the Andijon Massacre in 2005, she claimed that she did not understand what had happened. 

    First, in Fergana itself, we strolled around the extensive park with a towering statue of the 9th century astronomer after whom the town is named, al-Farghani. Next we visited the Fergana State Museum where I signed the visitor book on behalf of the group. Finally we stopped for some green tea at a cafe where I befriended a group of local women in their 70s who gather to do embroidery together. When I said that I was looking for a new wife, they all volunteered and I chose the one who said that she was single! 

    We then made the short drive to the town of Margilon which dates back to the 1st century BC. Here we toured the Yodgorlik silk factory where we were shown the traditional methods of silk production from steaming and unravelling the cocoons to the tie-dying and weaving. A pause for lunch was at a local restaurant called “Diyor”. Finally we walked around the complex of the 18th century saint Pur Siddiq whom legend says escaped with his life when pigeons built nests to cover the cave where he was hiding from infidels. 

    Dinner was at a different local restaurant with the authentically Uzbek name (!) “Brown Sugar Coffee House”. 

    DAY 12: RISHTON, KOKAND & TASHKENT IN UZBEKISTAN

    It was basically a travelling day (Day 12) as we left the Fergana Valley to journey to Tashkent prior to our venture next day into Tajikistan. 

    The group of eight plus our guide and luggage were allocated to four modern white cars, the LPG-powered Chevrolet Cobalt. I sat in the front of my car with Charles & Nova in the back. At the beginning of the journey, I was a confirmed atheist but almost immediately I became a devout Muslim because our Uzbek driver – no doubt very competent – drove at breakneck speed and frightening agility. And, all the time that we were in towns, we had endless loud bleeping from his device to warn of speed detectors. 

    The roads were excellent but that only encouraged the driver to go to infinity and beyond. Meanwhile the temperature rose to 32C and the car’s air-con was so disappointing that we kept the windows open. I slept most of the time that we were on the road so that I did not have to witness too much of this mania.

    Our convoy left our hotel in Fergana at 8.30 am and reached our hotel in Tashkent at 6.30 pm so it was a ten-hour day – but we did stop two and a half times. The first stop was at Rishton where we visited the ceramics workshop of Rustam & Regina Usmanov.  The local clay and glaze are unique and I bought eight beautiful tiles.

    The second stop was at the town of Kokand which, in the 18th & 19th centuries, was capital of one of Uzbekistan’s three great khanates and second only to Bukhara as a religious centre in Central Asia. An excellent local guide called Anvar took us around the magnificent Palace of the Khan of Kokand which was built in 1873 with seven courtyards and 114 rooms. Shorter visits were to a former madrassa, a current mosque, and a graveyard before we had lunch at the “Benazir” restaurant. 

    This is because the pass is seen as a strategic location in the event of conflict, should Kyrgyzstan to the north or Tajikistan to the south decided to cut off the Fergana Valley to the east or attack Tashkent to the west. This may seem unlikely, but that day there had been a border incident between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan which resulted in the death of a border guard and injury to five others.  

    On my trip to Uzbekistan in 2006, we stayed at the grim Uzbekistan Hotel, but this time we were in the Lotte City Hotel which is a splendid facility and dinner was at the hotel. 

    Next day we would head for Tajikistan – border disputes permitting. 

    DAY 13: KHOJAND IN TAJIKISTAN

    Another day – Day 13 and the half way point in the trip – and another country – Tajikistan which on its eastern side borders China, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  So we took our large coach from Tashkent to a border crossing with Tajikistan some 90 km (56 miles) south – a journey of about two hours – where we said goodbye to our guide Timur (we would see him again in Samarkand). Like the border crossing into Uzbekistan, the crossing into Tajikistan involved lots of walking, lots of dragging of suitcases, and repeated examination of passports (and, in this case, visas). 

    About three quarters of an hour later, we met our guide for Tajikistan, Shahbaz, and were ushered into two small minibuses. The journey further south to Khojand took an hour and, once at the Khojand Deluxe Hotel, we were given all of 15 minutes to find our rooms and return to reception for the short ride to our lunch venue: a restaurant called “Zaytun”.

    Khojand was called Leninabad during the Soviet era. It is the second-largest city in the country and  one of the oldest cities in Central Asia, dating back about 2,500 years and a major city along the ancient Silk Road. 

    Our afternoon tour of the city involved visits to the Historical Museum of Sughd Province (fascinating review of local history), the Sheikh Massal ad-Din complex (a former mosque, a current mosque and a mausoleum), the Panchshanbe Bazaar (reputedly the largest in Central Asia), Victory Park (the site of the relocated 22 metre statue of Lenin), and – after a slow cable car ride across the Syr-Darya river – a memorial to regional hero Ismail Samani which stands where the Lenin statue used to be. 

    An early dinner was held sitting outside the city restaurant “Adibon” where, instead of yet another version of plov, Shahbaz ordered for us chicken, lamb & beef kebabs which were delicious.

      DAY 14: ISTARAVSHAN IN TAJIKISTAN

    It was another day (Day 14) in Tajikistan and consisted of a long road journey south-west to Iskander-Kul with a major stop at Istaravshan. In fact, our first (short) stop was to view cotton-picking in roadside fields – a really tough occupation carried out by women and supervised by a man.

    At Istaravshan, we started with a quick viewing of a structure called Mug Teppe. This blue-domed gateway was constructed in 2002 (and then extended in 2019) to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the city. Next we looked at a mosque complex with a minaret built in 1999. At this point, our guide Shahbaz added something to the programme: a demonstration of the making of wooden combs by the master Sadiq. 

    Still in Istaravshan, it was time for lunch and this was in a self-service establishment called “Faroyon”. For the first time on our trip, we were able to choose both what we wanted to eat and how much of it we wanted. I even managed to find a little baklava for dessert. Before leaving town, we had a look at a block of workshops opposite the main bazaar which is dubbed Blacksmiths Arcade because here local artisans with their own forges craft everything from nails to knives. 

    At this stage, we headed off for a tunnel through rock built by the Chinese called Shahriston Tunnel. Located at an elevation of around 2,600 metres (about 8,500 feet), it is 5.2 kms (over 3 miles) long and poorly lit but it does the job. Once out in daylight again, the road plunges downwards in a series of tight twists and turns overlooking precipitous drops. In 45 minutes, we descended almost 1,300 metres (about 4,300 feet) to the Zerafshan River. Anyone would find this an awesome experience and, sitting in the ‘drop’ side of our vehicle, I certainly found it exhilarating. 

    With comfort stops and a final three quarters of an hour along the kind of rough-roading that we experienced in Kyrgyzstan, we finally reached Iskander-Kul (Alexander Lake). We had left Khojand at 8.30 am and reached  Iskander-Kul at 5 pm, so it was a journey of around 200 kms (about 120 miles) that took us eight and half hours, but we had spent around four hours in Istaravshan and had a number of comfort and photo stops. 

    Even before entering our accommodation, Shahbaz offered us a walk to a waterfall. Of the eight members of the group, only four decided to set off and a mere two actually made it – ironically the two oldest members of the group: me (74) and Philip (77). 

    The chalet-like accommodation was clean and comfortable but very basic – with no WiFi! Dinner was served on-site in what looked like a large empty greenhouse.

    DAY 15: FROM TAJIKISTAN BACK TO UZBEKISTAN

    On Day 15, it was wonderful to wake up over-looking a glorious lake scene. Before breakfast, I made.a short walk by the lake-side and, after breakfast, the group drove a bit further round the lake for different views. Iskander-Kul, named – according to legend – after Alexander the Great, is a mountain lake of glacial origin and lies on the northern slopes of the Gissar Range in the Fann Mountains. 

    It is located at 2,190 metres (7,200 feet) so, in the early morning and nighttime, extra clothing is advisable. The views are breathtaking and I could happily have spent the morning there but, as always, we were on the go.

    We returned to the main road – another three quarters of an hour of bouncing around – and then, back on that road, we headed west to the town of Penjikent. This is a place with an ancient history dating back to the Silk Road days.  Indeed, just outside the modern town, are the ruins of an old Sogdian town which was destroyed in 722 and discovered in 1946. it is dubbed ‘the Pompeii of Central Asia’ but in truth there is no comparison. 

    After lunch at a restaurant called “Nigina” (where nobody knew the password to the WiFi), we had another look at Tajik history when we visited an impressive history museum named after Abu Abdullah Rudaki (858-941) who is known as ‘the father of Persian poetry’.

    After three days in Tajikistan, it was time to return to Uzbekistan, so we said farewell to Shahbaz and hooked up with our Uzbek guide Timur on the other side of the border where the group returned to travelling in one coach and we drove to the magical city of Samarkand. I was here in 2006 and never expected to return.

      The previous two days, Samarkand hosted a meeting of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation with President Putin of Russia and President Xi of China as two of the participants. Also in attendance were the presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan whose armies had been fighting border skirmishes while we had been in Tajikistan. According to media reports, 26 people had been killed. 

    Our boutique hotel was the Grand Samarkand and dinner was at a restaurant called “Xan Atlas” which was especially enjoyable because the main dish was fish (we have eaten so much meat) and the dessert was birthday cake (one of the group was 67).

    DAY 16: SAMARKAND IN UZBEKISTAN

    We spent the whole of Day 16 in Samarkand and it was the best day yet and arguably it would be the highlight of the entire tour.  Samarkand – ‘samar’ means land and ‘kand’ means sweet – is situated in the valley of the river Zarafshan. The first settlement here was constructed in the 6th century BC and was first conquered by Alexander the Great some 200 years later. He spent two years here and married Roxanne. For some 2,000 years, it was one of the most important stops on the Silk Road.

    The city fell to Islam when Qutaiba ibn Muslim invaded it in 712. Tamerlane made it his capital of the relatively small region of Transoxiana in 1370 and then proceeded to expand his empire. It is a centre of the great Tajik culture and the vast majority of the people here is still Tajik-speaking. It is the second city of Uzbekistan with a population of 500,000 and it is usually cooler than much of the rest of the country.

    Our first call of the day was to the Gur Emir Mausoleum. Originally this mausoleum was built by Tamerlane for his grandson who died in 1404, but more significantly it was used to house the tomb of Tamerlane himself who died the following year. The term Gur Emir means ‘Tomb of the Emir’. Tamerlane’s two sons and grandson are entombed here and beneath a two-metre slab of dark-coloured jade – in the ancient world more precious than gold – there is the tomb of Tamerlane himself. Eight tombs stand here altogether under a sky-blue dome with 64 ribs reaching up to 32 metres (105 feet). 

    Next stop was the Ulug Beg Observatory. This is located at 710 metres in the foothills overlooking the district of Afrosiab to the north-east of Samarkand and it was built in 1428 by Tamerlane’s grandson Ulug Beg (1394-1449) who was much less interested in warfare than in science. The complex housed the largest 90 degree quadrant the world had ever seen, although it is called a sextant because only 60 degrees were used, but it was destroyed by fanatics in 1449. It was only discovered in 1908 by the Russian archaeologist Viatkin. All one can see today is a section of the quadrant located by Viatkin (11 metres 0r 36 feet) embedded in the rock, but opposite there is also an interesting little museum with all the exhibits described in Uzbek, Russian and English.

    Then we visited the holiest site in Samarkand: Shah-i-Zinda (The Living King). This complex of 22 buildings is a necropolis of 44 mausoleums dating mostly from the 14th & 15th centuries which climbs up a hill via a series of 36 steps (the Staircase of Sinners) and various passages. Master Persian and Azerbaijani craftsmen created stunning works of terracotta, majolica and tile work. The most famous tomb is that of Qusam ibn-Abbas, believed to have been a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, which was constructed in 1460. Three pilgrimages to it are deemed the equivalent of one to Mecca. Restoration work is a constant process.

    The weather was glorious so lunch was outside at the “Oriental Sweets” restaurant – a converted caravanserai – where unusually coffee was available before and after the food.  

    After lunch, we visited the Bibi Khanum Mosque which was built on the orders of Tamerlane in 1399-1404 by 600 slaves and 100 elephants brought from India and 200 architects, artists, master craftsmen and masons from the rest of the empire. It was once one of the Islamic world’s largest mosques but, over the centuries, it crumbled and it finally collapsed in an earthquake in 1897. The name ‘Bibi Khanum’ means elder wife and there is a legend about the building of the mosque that probably stems from Tamerlane’s chief wife Sray Mulk Khanum [for information on the legend click here]. The ensemble consists of two small side mosques and the large central mosque before which stands a huge marble pedestal holding a facsimile of the famous Osman Koran which is located in Tashkent.

    Next to the mosque, we were able to stroll around Samarkand’s main bazaar called the Siyob Market. This mainly sells dry foods, especially such items as non bread, melons, apples, apricots, and raisins.

    Finally an electric van – something new compared to 2006 – carried us to the greatest set of buildings on our tour: the Registan. The name means ‘sandy place’ and it is said that sand was strewn on the ground to soak up the blood from the public executions that were held there until early in the 20th century. The central square is the size of a football pitch and the whole complex is considered by many to be the noblest public square in the world.

    The complex consists of three great buildings around this central square. They were madrassahs for private study and not mosques for public worship and originally built by the children and grandchildren of Tamerlane. However, with the exception of the Ulug Beg, they were later destroyed and replaced in the 17th century, so the three structures were built over a period of 230 years. The two later buildings were the work of the architect Abd al-Jabbar who drew his inspiration from the earlier Timurid style which is why the three buildings are so harmonious in spite of construction over a period of more than two centuries. All three contain a central courtyard with large iwans (arched portals).

    Islam forbids the representation of living things and even symmetrical patterns, so the buildings are covered with intricate Kufic quotations from the Koran, inscriptions extolling the magnificence of the buildings, and various ornate patterns. The dominant colour of the tiles is deep blue. Sadly only about 10% of the tiles that one sees today are original. Most of the tiles that look old and damaged in fact date from the Soviet restoration of the 1970s. The Registan is today designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One approaches the complex from the fourth, open (southern) side and (another change from 2006) there is an official entry point and charge. 

    On the left hand side is the Ulug Beg Madrassah constructed between 1417-1420 shortly after the death of Tamerlane. It was built by Tamerlane’s grandson Ulug Beg. He was a mathematician and astronomer and encouraged the teaching of science as well as religion. The elaborate tiiing of stars reflects Ulug Beg’s passion for astronomy. Having room for over 100 teachers and students in 52 cells positioned around the courtyard, effectively this building was a university. This period brought the cultural flourishing that led to the medical discoveries of Abu Sinna (known to renaissance Europe as Avicenna) and the mathematical breakthroughs of Al Khorezm (for whom algebra is named).

    On the right hand side is the Sher-Dor Madrassah built between 1619-1636 and modelled on the earlier Ulug Beg Madrassah. The name means ‘Lion Bearer’. Although the Koran forbids the depiction of animals and people, the tiling on the pishtaq (porch) shows two lions stalking gazelles and behind each lion is a sun portrayed with a human face. This was the badge of Tamerlane. The unorthodox representation is attributed in part to the ego of the governor who built the madrassah and in part to the continued influence of the Persian Zoroastrians who revered the power of the sun.

    Both the Ulug Beg Madrassah and the Sher-Dor Madrasah have minarets at each of the four corners. However, these were used more for decoration than for calling the faithful to prayer because the buildings were primarily colleges rather than mosques. Indeed, in Tamerlane’s day, they were used for public executions with criminals being thrown from the top of a minaret in a sack. 

    Straight ahead between the Ulug Beg Madrassah and the Sher-Dor Madrasah is the Tillya-Kari Madrassah built between 1646-1660. The name means ‘Gold Decorated’. This building looks different from the other two. There are no minarets on the corners, but instead a dome chamber to the left which covers the mihrab facing Mecca. The dome was restored in 1969 and on the inside looks breath-taking.

    Dinner was in a city restaurant again – this time an Italian place called “Risotto” which served a dessert dubbed an Uzbek tiramisu. 

    DAY 17: SHAKHRISABZ IN UZBEKISTAN

    Today (Day 17) was technically a day at leisure but, although I had been there in 2006, I had previously signed up for an optional excursion to Shakhrisabz for an extra £50.  In fact, all but one of the group decided to make the trip (the odd one out had been before) and we made the two-hour journey in three cars. All the drivers were pretty manic, driving constantly at about 100 km per hour (around 70 mph) which seemed faster on roads which, while decent by the standards of Central Asia, were far from the standard of a British motorway. 

    Shakhrisabz is famous as the birthplace of Tamerlane who gave it its present name which in Tajik stands for ‘Green Town’. Timur bin Taraghay Barlas (1336–1405) was a 14th century warlord of Turco-Mongol descent, conqueror of much of Western and Central Asia, and founder of the Timurid Empire (1370–1405) in Central Asia and of the Timurid dynasty which survived in some form until 1857. He is also known as Timur-e Lang which translates to Timur the Lame or Tamerlane, as he was lame after sustaining an injury to the leg as a child.

    He was born in Shakhrisabz in 1346 and later ruled over an empire that extended in modern nations from south eastern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Iran, through central Asia encompassing part of Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, India, even approaching Kashgar in China.

    Tamerlane’s legacy is a mixed one, for while Central Asia blossomed, some say even peaked, under his reign, other places such as Baghdad, Damascus and other Arab, Persian and Turkic cities were sacked and destroyed and many thousands of people were slaughtered. He is therefore one of history’s greatest and cruelest conquerors responsible for an estimated 17 million deaths as a result of his 14 military campaigns.

    However, under the post-independence Karimov regime and subsequently, Tamerlane is revered as the founder of the Uzbek nation, even though he was not an Uzbek, he did not speak Uzbek, and he massacred large numbers of Uzbeks.

    The main sight in Shakhrisabz is the Ak-Seray or White Palace. The palace is named as the colour denoting noble descent, not as the visual impression, since blue, green and gold patterned the vast mosaics. When Tamerlane had it constructed at the beginning of the 15th century, two towers of 65 metres (215 feet) flanked a portal arch of 40 metres (130 feet) high and 22 metres (70 feet) wide, but the central arch collapsed a couple of centuries ago and the two remaining towers are in a sorry state of repair.  Nevertheless it remains awesome and underlines Tamerlane’s boast “Let he who doubts our power and munificence look upon our buildings”. The open park behind Ak-Seray used to have a statue of Lenin but, since 1996, it has displayed a huge statue of local hero Tamerlane.

    Since my visit in 2006, much of central Shakhrisabz has been destroyed and replaced by open areas which seemingly are popular with the locals but angered the administrators of the UN World Heritage Site scheme. 

    Besides the Ak Serai, the other main place to be visited in Shakhrisabz is a pair of ensembles called Dor-us-Siadat (Seat of Power and Might) and Dor-ut-Tilavat (Seat of Respect and Consideration). In 2006, we saw both but, on this visit, we only went to the first because our guide insisted that the second had been reconstructed in a very poor style.

    Dor-us-Siadat is a crumbling mausoleum that was built to honour Jehangir, the eldest and favourite son of Tamerlane who was killed in 1375 aged only 22 when he fell from a horse. Behind the mausoleum is a crypt discovered in 1943 when a child playing football fell through the ground. This is still called Tamerlane’s crypt although he was never buried here and the simple musty room seems far too plain for such a conqueror.

    We were back in Samarkand in time for a late lunch in a grand restaurant named after the city. Before we left the restaurant, Timur broke the news that, two days before we were due to enter the fifth and final country of our tour, Turkmenistan had decided not to admit us. This was in spite of all the reassurances from VJV before our departure that we could purchase a visa for $100 at the Turkmenistan border. At this stage, we had no idea what the revised arrangements would be.

    After a leisurely dinner at one more city restaurant, the “Istiqlol”, we continued with our planned itinerary by taking an evening train from Samarkand to Bukhara.  This is a journey of 276 km (170 miles) which took an hour and a half in comfortable style. 

    DAY 18: BUKHARA IN UZBEKISTAN

    Now in Bukhara (Day 18), we had a splendid day on a tour of some of the many sights of the Old City. It was 35C and there was not a cloud in the sky.  The name Bukhara means ‘monastery’ in Sanskrit. They say that the 20th century has not yet arrived in Bukhara, yet alone the 21st century. Although the city’s origins are lost in time, the local authorities arbitrarily chose 1997 to celebrate Bukhara’s 2,500th anniversary. The city is a centre of the great Tajik culture and the vast majority of the local population is still Tajik-speaking.

    Much of the Old City’s appearance dates to the 16th century when Bukhara was capital of the Bukhara khanate and the city boasted dozens of caravansaries (merchants’ inns) and bazaars, 100 madrassahs (Islamic colleges), and 300 mosques. There are almost 1,000 places of historic interest and over 140 buildings are protected architectural sites. The dominant colour is brown or mustard and overzealous restoration has been kept at bay here.

    We started our city tour at the Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah. This particular madrassah – dating from the 1630s – has a tympanum decorated with two flying phoenixes with white does clamped in their talons (a rare type of design since humans and animals do not normally feature in Islamic art). Opposite this building is a statue of Hoja Nasruddin astride a donkey. He is a semi-mythical ‘wise fool’ who appears in Sufi teaching tales. Further along is the Lyabi-Hauz, a plaza built around a pool in 1620 (the name is Tajik for ‘around the pool’). 

    At the height of its commercial power, Bukhara had five main vaulted and domed bazaars or trading domes or toks. They straddled convergent trade arteries and were accessed by entrance arches tall enough for a laden pack camel. Today three of these bazaars survive. The northern-most and largest of the three is the Tok-i-Zagaron (jewellers) of 1570. The other two are the Tok-i-Sarrafon (money changers) and the Tok-i-Telpak Furushon (cap makers).  It was a joy to wander through them.

    Next we admired a pair of madrassahs standing directly opposite one another – such a pair is called kosh madrassahs. On the north side is the Uleg Beg Madrassah of 1417. This was named after the grandson of Tamerlane and star motifs reflect his fascination with astronomy. On the south side is the Abdel Aziz Madrassah of 1652. Today it is – like so many former madrassahs – full of stalls selling to tourists.

    Registan Square is the heart of the old town (or shakhristan) and the scene of many historic events ranging from the execution of the British ‘Great Game’ adventurers Charles Stoddart & Arthur Conolly in 1842 [for further information click here] to the overthrowing of the emirate and the raising of the Red Flag in 1920.

    On the square is the main entrance to the Ark Fortress with its high sloping walls and bulbous towers that swell out at the bottom. Home to the rulers of Bukhara for a millennium, the Ark is as old as Bukhara itself. The first fortress to be documented as built here dates from the 7th century, but the present form of the fortress dates from the 16th century. The Ark was 80% destroyed in September 1920 by a fire started by Bolshevik bombardment.

    Entrance to the impressive Ark is through a western gateway built in 1742 and up a stone ramp. At the top of the walkway, one reaches the 18th century Court Mosque with its deeply-carved mushroom-topped stalactite pillars. This is now a small museum. Then there is the 17th century Throne Room (or Kurinesh Khana) which has witnessed a series of coronations of new emirs. This was largely destroyed by the fire of 1920 and has been the subject of much restoration. 

    Hidden behind the Ark is the Zindan, the old water tower that served for centuries as the city jail. There were three appalling cells, the most infamous known as the Bug Pit because, when a prisoner was judged to be too ill to be fed, he was given over to the spiders. Access to this pit was only down a six metre long rope. The pit housed the British adventurers Charles Stoddart & Arthur Conolly before they were beheaded.

    Travelling east along the road known as Khodja Nurobod, we came to perhaps the jewel of Bukhara’s old town: the magnificent square called Poi Kalon (literally the ‘Pedestal of the Great One’). At the south end, it contains the famed giant brick Kalon Minaret, spared by Genghis Khan, and standing 48 metres (155 feet) high. A minaret has stood here since 919 and the present one was started in 1127.

    On opposite sides of this graceful square are the Mir-i-Arab Madrassah and the Kalon Mosque. The Mir-i-Arab Madrassah is now the largest Muslim school in Uzbekistan. The name means ‘Prince of Arabs’ and refers to Sheikh Addullah of Yemen, the spiritual adviser to the Shaybani Ubaydullah Khan who had the madrassah built in the 16th century. Today it houses around 140 students who study a four-year course of Arabic, theology and the Koran.

    The Kalon Mosque forms a 127 by 78 metre (415 by 255 feet) open rectangle with four iwans on its axis and seven entrance gates. The name means ‘Great’ and, not only is it one of the most ancient mosques in Central Asia, it is also the second biggest, capable of accommodating some 10,000 worshipers. A mosque of one kind or another has stood here since 795 and the present structure was completed in 1514.

    Dinner was something special. We went to the home cum workshop of a guy called Rahmon where, as well as having dinner, we had music from two men, dances from two women, and displays of beautiful suzanis. At an invitation from one of the dancers, I joined in for a while in the interests of British-Uzbek relations.  

    DAY 19: AROUND BUKHARA IN UZBEKISTAN

    At this stage (Day 19), the whole pace of our intensive holiday changed. Instead of crossing into Turkmenistan, we remained in Bukhara for a leisurely day in the area.

    First, we drove the short distance out of the city to a place called Sitorai Mohi Hosa. This is popularly known as the Mir’s Summer Palace since it was built by the Russians in 1911 for the last Emir Alim Khan to persuade him to leave the Ark Fortress. There are three main courtyards and these days the buildings are mainly occupied by local art & craft museums. The style of the architecture and furnishings is an odd mix of Russian and Central Asian.

    Next we drove further north to the little town of Giyduvon to visit a place called “Farzona” which is a centre for ceramic and weaving crafts set in a large family home that is also a guest house. After the traditional greeting of tea, the owner – 8th generation master Alisher Abdullaev – showed us how the clay is fashioned and the threads are weaved before we had lunch out in the courtyard. 

    Back in Bukhara, we were given the opportunity of an hour of free time back in the Old City. I chose to find my way to somewhere I had seen on my 2006 trip which had not been covered this time round: the Bolo-Hauz Mosque of 1718, the emir’s official place of worship. The 12 metre (39 feet) high diwan still stands as one of the highest, most graceful, and most beautifully decorated in Central Asia. A distinguishing feature of the mosque is its 20 pillars. In fact, the building is often referred to as the 40 pillar mosque because of the reflecting pool in front of it, but sadly the water is so low and turgid these days that the effect has to be imagined.

    Dinner was in the Old City. Again it was in a restaurant with a wonderful ambience and good food. It was called “Anor” which means pomegranate. Afterwards we had a walk to see the Kalon Minaret beautifully illuminated. At the foot of the minaret, a rock band was just finishing an open-air concert. 

    DAY 20: STILL BUKHARA IN UZBEKISTAN

    As yesterday, it was a slow day (Day 20) in Bukhara instead of an intensive day in Turkmenistan.

    We started by visiting the workshop of a world renown artist of miniatures. Davlat Toshev has exhibited in the Louvre and hopes to have an exhibition in London sometime soon. His work ranges in price from $50 to $20,000. Next we strolled around the former Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Since independence, almost all of Bukhara’s Jews have emigrated to Israel or the United States, so the remaining synagogue is rarely open but we were fortunate. 

    We then drove the short distance to a park on the western side of the city to view the Ismail Samani Mausoleum. This place was discovered in 1934 by the Russian archaeologist Shishkin who found it buried in accumulated sand and earth which had ensured its survival during the Mongol destruction. It was completed in 905, making it over 1,000 years old. Indeed it is arguably the oldest intact structure in Central Asia. It is a 10.8 metre (35 feet) cube made of baked bricks laid out so that the ornamentation is never the same when the light shines on it.

    It was time for another bazaar and a large one was walking distance from the mausoleum with an array of colours and odours to enjoy. Next stop was the Chashma Ayub Mausoleum. The name translates as Job’s Well and legend has it that the prophet struck his staff in the ground and found water here. However, there is no evidence that Job ever visited Bukhara and, since he lived in pre-Biblical times and the original construction dates from the 12th century, this is clearly just a legend. Today the building houses a small museum about water management in Bukhara. 

    Lunch was in an amazing place called Akbar House. The building was 270 years old and started out as the home of a 19th century Jewish merchant. Today it is a protected structure so that the design and contents have to stay the same. After lunch of traditional but local plov, the hostess displayed suzanis to us. Since we were supposed to be in Turkmenistan today, our extended programme in Bukhara had run out of steam and we were given the afternoon at leisure. I had no appetite for more mosques and mausoleums, so I remained at our hotel where I wrote and read. 

    Dinner was at another splendid location: a trendy restaurant called “Andara” where we had pike perch fish on the rooftop terrace.

    DAY 21: THE ROAD TO KHIVA IN UZBEKISTAN

    If our trip had gone according to plan, we would have driven into Khiva from the border crossing between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan a short distance away, having spent three nights in Turkmenistan. Instead on Day 21, we had to travel to Khiva by road from Bukhara, a distance of  some 450 km (over 300 miles) and the longest road journey of our holiday. 

    Now, in 2006, I did this road journey in the opposite direction from Khiva to Bukhara. It was a grim experience. Last time, it took six and a half hours with two very brief stops to relieve ourselves in the open; this time, it took eight and a half hours but with stops at locations with toilets and with an hour or so for lunch.  What was exactly the same, of course, was the terrain.

    Most of the journey is through a kind of desert known as Kizil-Kum which translates as ‘red sand’. In fact, in dry conditions, the sand is more brown-coloured and, every few feet, there is a type of tiny tree which looks more like a thin bush.  

    Otherwise, nothing: no towns, no villages, no houses, no hills, no rocks, no animals (although lizards and snakes are hiding in the sand) – just a road stretching straight ahead all the way to the horizon and very few other vehicles. This only changed when we crossed the Amu-Darya River (historically known as the Oxus) when suddenly the land becomes greener and people and animals can be seen.

    Everything else was different: a much better coach, improved roads (until the river), no checkpoints, and even occasional service stations. Indeed, we were astonished when, about half way to Khiva and literally in the middle of nowhere, we stopped at a service station which had a restaurant called “Zahratun” where we had a very decent lunch. 

    Our hotel in Khiva – Asia Khiva – was actually the one where I stayed in 2006. After some time to rest, Timur took us into the Inchan Kala (the walled city) through the Tosh Darvoza (South Gate) just opposite our hotel and up to a viewing platform at the Kuhna Ark to see the sun set – a magical experience.

    Then we had dinner at a restaurant called “Tapas”, sitting outdoors on a terrace overlooking the Kalta Minor Minaret – more magic. 

    DAY 22: KHIVA IN UZBEKISTAN

    We were now in Khiva (Day 22). Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand were all caravan cities on the legendary Silk Road, the ancient trading route that led from China through the Middle East and into Europe, and Khiva is the most intact and the most remote of these Silk Road cities.

    The place has existed since pre-Biblical times and it was at its most powerful in the 16th & 17th centuries, although the oldest remaining buildings are only 19th century. Since 1967, Khiva’s status as a museum city has ensured that it remains the most homogeneous collection of architecture in the Islamic world. Today it is a city of 80,000, some 3,000 of them located in the legendary inner walled city known as Ichan Kala. The walls are 8 metres (26 feet) high and run for 2.2 km (over a mile).

    In the morning and early afternoon, we had an excellent tour of some of the many sights of the Inchan Kala with a tiny local guide called Ana. It was another really hot day.  Entering by the South Gate, we started at the Islam Hodja Madrassah (1908) and the Islam Hodja Minaret (1910) named after the Grand Vizier of the time and constructed by a poor architect who was subsequently buried alive. The minaret stand 44.8 metres (146 feet) high, only a little shorter than the Kalon in Bukhara.

    Next stop was the Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum, named after a character who lived from 1247-1325 and – unlikely as it sounds – managed to combine being a wrestler, a poet, and a furrier. This mausoleum was created between 1810-1835 but, during the Soviet era, it was transformed into the Khorezm Museum of Revolutionary History.

    We called into workshops for carpet and wood carving before admiring the imposing Kalta Minor Minaret (Short Minaret) which was commissioned by the khan in 1852 to stand at over 70 metres (230 feet) as the biggest in the Islamic world, but abandoned in the wake of his death while standing at only 26 metres (85 feet). It is still a beautiful sight with bands of different coloured tiles glistening in the sunshine. There was music and action as an outdoor puppet performance entertained the tourists. 

    Now we visited the complex known as the Kuhna Ark (Old Fortress). The foundations of the Ark date from the 5th century but most of the structure was added to piecemeal in the 19th century. At the heart of the complex is the Summer Mosque which is also known as the Ak-Sheikh Bobo Mosque. Black elm pillars support a structure of majolica tiles housing the usual mihrab (a niche facing Mecca) and minbar (a pulpit). The other impressive feature of the complex is the Kurinsh Khana (Throne Room) which was built in 1804-1806. Here the khan would grant public audiences. Indeed, as luck would have it, we witnessed a guy dressed up as the khan pontificating to a group of subjects also wearing period costume. 

    Next we came to the Sayid Allauddin Mausoleum. This tomb dates from 1310 when Khiva was under the Golden Horde of the Mongol Empire and is known as the earliest standing building in Khiva. It was restored in 1825 and is decorated with gorgeous majolica tiles. 

    Then we were on to the Juma Mosque of 1788. What makes this particular mosque memorable is the forest of black 3.15 metres (10 feet) apart, but they are of very varying ages (the four oldest being 10th century). A scene from the movie “Orlando” was filmed here in 1992. Beside the Juma Mosque is the 47 metre (154 feet) Juma Minaret.

    The final visit of the tour was a highlight: the Tosh-Hovli (Stone House) Palace built between 1830-1838 on the orders of Allah Kuli Khan. It is a complex of 163 rooms and three courtyards, consisting of a harem for the four wives and 37 concubines, a reception court (Ishrat Hauli), and a court of law (Arz Hauli). The complex’s first architect was executed for failing to complete the task in two years. 

    We had free time in the afternoon. In a part of that, I returned to the Islam Hodja Madrassah to look around the Museum of Applied Arts. Then dinner was a buffet affair at the hotel. It was a rather mediocre affair, but then we have been spoiled by lots of excellent dinners in splendid restaurants.

      DAY 23: AROUND KHIVA IN UZBEKISTAN

    Day 23 found us still staying in Khiva and it was a light day with simply a morning trip to two nearby locations with a local guide called Enessa. 

    On the outskirts of Khiva is the Palace of Nurullabay which was built between 1906 and 1912. Like the Summer Palace outside Bukhara, this is a mixture of Eastern and Western or Uzbek and Russian styles. The rooms are largely empty, so one admires the ceramic chimneys, large mirrors and gold-embroidered ceilings. There is a collection of early photographs of the various khans and some of their subjects.

    Further out of town –  north-west towards Urgench –  is a place called Ulli Hovli (Great Court) Fortress. Some three centuries ago, this became home to around 100 Turkmen families who were unhappy living in Turkmenistan and allowed to move to Uzbekistan. In 2014, it was turned into a Turkmen Cultural Centre. Given that our group had been refused entry to Turkmenistan, this was the best way on this trip to learn something of the Turkmen way of life and the complex includes the breeding of Bactrian camels and Ahalteke horses and access to yurts and crafts.  We had lunch here.  

    After free time in the afternoon, we returned to the walled city for dinner at a restaurant called ”Odilbek”. This evening, we were treated to a display of traditional music and dance called ‘lazgi’. There were five men performing string, drum and pipe instruments and three dancers – two brightly dressed women and a young boy – presenting narrative dances. I was prevailed upon to represent the British by joining in one of these dances. 

    DAY 24: KARAKALPAKSTAN IN UZBEKISTAN

    It was our penultimate day (Day 24) in Central Asia and, leaving behind Khiva after three nights, it was back to travelling, back to bumpy roads, back to the endless desert. However, the temperature had suddenly fallen from around 35C to about 25C which was more comfortable. 

    Over the last few weeks, we had spent a lot of time in different parts of Uzbekistan, working roughly from east to west, starting in the north-east at the Fergana Valley and finishing now in the north-west in a region called Khorezm which is the delta of the Amu-Darya River. Historically, what the Nile is to Egypt, the Amu-Darya has been to Central Asia.  

    For this morning, we reunited with local guide Ana to travel to a part of the Khorezm region called Elliq-Qala (Fifty Fortresses). We visited two of these fortresses quite close to the town of Buston, but otherwise in the middle of the empty desert. 

    First was Ayala-Qala which was at its height in the 6th & 7th centuries. It was quite a tough climb to the top and only three members of the group – I was one – bothered to do it. The second was Toprak-Qala which dates from the 3rd & 4th centuries.  A new set of stone steps made access relatively easy. Before leaving the area, sitting in our coach we had a packed lunch.

    After lunch, we drove a further 150 km (over 90 miles) to a place called Nukus which “The Lonely Planet” calls “one of Uzbekistan’s least appealing cities”.  This is the capital of a semi-autonomous part of Uzbekistan which is styled the Republic of Karakalpakstan (the name means ‘black hat’). It has an area of 166,590 sq km – a bit bigger than England & Wales and over one third the total area of Uzbekistan – but a population of only 2M. It has a right to leave Uzbekistan at any time, but it is so poor that this would not make any sense. 

    Nukus’s only real tourist attraction is the Savitsky Museum, an impressive art gallery founded by the Russian Igor Savitsky (1915-1984) who somehow managed to curate the world’s second largest collection of Soviet avant-garde art (the largest is in St Petersburg). The museum opened in 1968 and the new building was completed in 2017. We spent about an hour and a half here with a museum guide called Muhabbat who knew the collection extremely well but had never heard of Frida Kahlo.

    Dinner was just around the corner of our hotel at a Turkish restaurant called “Sofram” – it was good to ring the changes with two types of pide. 

    DAYS 25 & 26: TASHKENT IN UZBEKISTAN AND HOME

    Our last day in Central Asia (Day 25) was one of the very busiest of a consistently full itinerary.  In Nukus, the hotel offered the smallest breakfast selection of the trip.  We left the hotel at 8 am and reached the airport in a mere 10 minutes and then the flight to Tashkent was just over an hour.

    Back in in the Uzbek capital, the temperature was a comfortable 28C and our local guide was a woman called Sayora. I saw some of Tashkent in 2006. These days, it is very different: a thriving modern city full of new shopping malls, accommodation blocks, cafes & restaurants and bright lights, with a population swollen to 4M. 

    Our visits before lunch could not have been more different, First, we went to the Khast Imom Square to see the oldest Koran in the world: the huge 7th century Osman Koran. I saw this book on my visit in 2006, but the square and its buildings are new and the final new building, an enormous new mosque, is due to open in 2025.

    Next we did something that I have not done before: we travelled a short distance on the famed Tashkent metro system which, in terms of grand design, is apparently second only to that of Moscow (where I have never been and do not expect to visit any time soon). The Tashkent metro has 46 stations and there is a security guard at the entrance to each. We admired two of the stations: one named after the Uzbek poet Alisha Noveji with a roof of domes and walls with turquoise panels and one named Cosmonauts and dedicated to the pioneers of space including the first man in space Yuri Gagarin and the first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova.

    At last, it was time for lunch.  Our meagre breakfast had been at about 7 am and it was now 1.30 pm. At the very large and overly ornate “Sim Sim” restaurant, we enjoyed kebabs. The afternoon involved two museums: one on the official tour and the other an optional extra.

    We spent half an hour at the Museum of Applied Art located in the former palace of a 19th century Russian diplomat. The museum contains some beautiful artefacts. Then, having booked into our hotel (we were back at the Lotte City), those who wished to view a second museum – only me and two others did – had a few minutes to find our rooms before walking round to the newly recurated National History Museum. This proved to be more interesting than feared with a final, extensive section on post-independence Uzbekistan, so it was an hour well-spent. 

    Back at the hotel, there was barely half an hour before the group was off again for a special farewell evening. It started with a classical concert of just over an hour and a half delivered by a full string orchestra. I am a lifelong lover of classical music, but I did not recognise any of the four pieces (the last and longest was the ‘Stabat Mater’). but I thoroughly enjoyed all of them.

    Then, we had a late-ish dinner at a restaurant with live music called “Caravan”. So it was about 10.30 pm before we returned to the hotel, over 14 hours since we had left the previous hotel in the morning. 

    Day 26 was all about travelling home. We left our Tashkent hotel at 6.30 am and at the airport we said farewell to Timur Ibragimov - an excellent guide who had been with us for a total of almost two weeks. It was a four hour flight from Tashkent to Istanbul and then a three hour plus flight from Istanbul to London, again both with Turkish Airlines. I was met at the airport by a car arranged by VJV, so I reached home 16 1/2 hours after leaving the hotel in Tashkent.

    While I had been away, I had grown a beard and the UK had obtained a new prime minister, a new monarch and a collapsed pound. So much change ...

    CONCLUSION

    It was always apparent that this trip to Central Asia would be a challenging one.  In the end, we visited four countries and not five (because Turkmenistan would not allow us entry); we made seven flights instead of nine; and we stayed at 16 hotels instead of 18. So, not quite what we expected, but still a very full programme with lots and lots of travelling often on very poor roads.  The weather was fantastic but typical temperatures in the mid 30sC could be quite wearing. 

    In a group of only eight, one went down with covid and spent three days in bed, two had such severe diarrhoea that they needed medical attention and a drip, and all but three of us – that included me – had bouts of diarrhoea necessitating the use of Imodium. Even without these problems, three of the group had walking difficulties. I was pleased that, even at my advanced age, I was able to manage everything physically. But a problem for me was that at least three voted for Brexit and I had to try hard to avoid political debates. 

    In spite of challenges and issues, it was a simply fabulous trip. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were mostly about scenery: canyons, rocks and lakes. Uzbekistan was essentially about architecture: mosques, mihrabs, minbars, minarets, madrassas, monuments and many many more miles. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are poor countries but Uzbekistan is thriving and I was pleased to find it more politically relaxed and more economically advanced on on my previous visit.

    We had lots of knowledgeable local guides but most of them spoke too much and too fast and their speech was heavily accented, so that concentrating on the information was hard. The toilet situation in Central Asia is something else. When you can find them, they are probably squatting affairs with no paper and no running water. The highlights of the trip were our visits to the Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.  Although I saw each of them 16 years ago, I loved seeing them again.  

    I reckon that I took a little over 1,000 photographs which I posted to Facebook as we went along.


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