ALL IMAGES © RHEA WILLIAMS
Our customers are constantly going on amazing adventures to every corner of the planet, but every now and then someone will go somewhere really unique, and it’s amazing to hear about their experiences. Dr and Mrs Williams did just that when they went to Uzbekistan during the summer. Here Mrs Williams, Rhea, recounts her journey along with some of her fantastic pictures of the country (found in the gallery below);
On June 20, my husband and I flew to Uzbekistan with Uzbek Airlines. It was a long walk from the shops in terminal 4 to the gate, but the advantage of flying to Uzbekistan in June is that the plane was half empty so many of us could have a whole row. This was wonderful for those who can sleep on a plane, but for the rest of us, it just meant not having to share an arm rest. It’s an 8 hour-ish flight going east so you get a sunset and a sunrise in 3 hours, and it’s beautiful. One gets through customs fairly quickly, which fills you with hope that you’ll be through with speed, but the hour’s wait for the luggage is somewhat deflating.
We do bespoke touring these days, so there is no worrying about finding a bus or a taxi when we arrive. We are met by a guide and a driver who speak the language and have done this before.
In Tashkent we met Tahir, our guide, and Andrey, our driver, who were both to be with us for the duration, which was lovely as we became a bit like a family, especially when Tahir’s 22 year old son, training to be a tour guide, joined us.
On arrival we were whisked to a bistro for breakfast and then driven straight through Tashkent to go to Kokand, in the Fergana Valley. We didn’t see Tashkent until later but we did notice how clean everywhere seemed to be and once on the open road, we saw an abundance of fruit trees, apricots, peaches and almonds… and storks. We played spot the stork; Andrey, our driver, won.
It seems that tourists don’t really go to the Fergana Valley, where we were headed, so the road wasn’t busy but was a good highway, even though the driving is not like in the UK. There are many long, straight bits of road that look as if the Romans have been there, and the scenery is just lovely, verdant and glorious. You drive through a huge, flat area that really lets you know what the word ‘valley’ means, as there are mountains on both sides, but miles and miles away.
The road stretches for an awfully long way before you start to climb, but then it’s quite quick, zig-zagging up to the top. There is a look out just before the top from where one can get wonderful photos of the road you’ve just done. In many bits there are no road markings and people drive where they want, but although we saw many dented cars, we never saw a pile up. There are several police check points, as one is driving very close to Tajikistan and photos are not allowed so the camera needs to be hidden.
We drove to the city of Kokand where we stayed in Hotel Khan, the best hotel in town! It was basic but clean. We were on the third floor and there was no lift. After a quick shower we went out to see the Palace of Khudayar Khan, which was shut but beautiful in the early evening light. Set in a huge park and with few people around, it was just lovely. We had a drink and then went to the Hall with Wooden Timbers, a disused mosque with 99 pillars, fabulously arranged. There is a beautiful minaret in the middle of the grounds and here was the first of many, many places we were charged for taking photos. From there we went to a cemetery to see how people here are buried; above ground with tomb-like things on the top. Impressive, but a huge waste of space.
After an unexciting breakfast we went to Rishtan, stopping en-route to admire a man-made canal that had been made in 45 days by 150,000 men. Everywhere ceramics were being sold, and we were taken to a ceramics ‘factory’, where it appeared that everything was handmade. There did seem rather a lot of it for that to be the case, but we saw things being painted with such delicacy, it was wonderful.
From there we went on to Margilan, to a silk factory. This was really interesting and we saw the silk being garnered from the silk worm cocoons, saw it being dyed using natural ingredients and then being woven into wonderful patterns and colours. There is, of course, a large shop there and you can buy to your heart’s content. I did!
Then, at our request, we visited a huge market, which sold mainly food but also hardware. People were fascinated by us and kept asking our guide where we came from. I suspect he got a little tired of constantly saying ‘Anglia’, followed by London, so sometimes we came from Manchester or Leeds, or any other town he could think of. One elderly chap followed us around and gave us fruit he washed in front of us, in bottled water. That was really kind, and seemingly typical of the kindness and interest of the Uzbeks. The two words I learned of Uzbek, Rachmat, meaning thank you, and Balik, meaning ok, came in very useful and were much appreciated. I had meant to learn numbers to 10, but with no language I know being similar, it was hard to keep the words in my head.
The next hotel was the Hotel Asia Fergana, which would have been lovely had it not been full of arrogant Russians. The hotel is the one used by the International Tennis Federation, so it’s full of aspiring tennis stars working their way up the rankings.
In the morning, after an incredibly sugary breakfast, we drove to Chust, via some ruins from the 15th century, to go the cleanest market you have ever seen. It is famous for its knives, from penknives to huge sword-type things which we saw being made and sold. We also saw, right at the end of the market, a couple of hardware stalls selling the strangest looking objects. They are called sumaks, and go inside the baby’s swaddling instead of a nappy; it’s a kind of wooden pipe used to channel the urine downward into a small pot. To look at, you’d think it was something you’d use to blow bubbles, but believe me, it’s not!
Lunch was in an open-air plov restaurant set on steps in a park. Then we went to see some ladies who sew the black hats that the men wear. The good ones are all done by hand, though the stitching is so fine you’d think it was machine done, and then we had the long drive back over the pass to Tashkent, where we spent the night.
TASHKENT to SAMARKAND
What evocative names those are, so full of promise and romance.
We were up early to catch a rather lovely, smart and extremely clean (even the windows!) train from the amazing Tashkent station to the beautiful Samarkand station. The train was spotless. The seats are like airline seats, they recline and there is lots of legroom. People come round selling food and for me, the whole experience of two hours-ish, was not long enough. I love trains and although the scenery was not spectacular, hey, we were in Uzbekistan and how many people do you know who’ve been there?
We were taken to The Grand Samarkand Superior hotel where we were to stay, and it really was a bit grand. It had the cleanest chandeliers I have ever seen; they were huge, sparkly and beautiful. The hotel itself was fairly small, but oh, those chandeliers!
Our first visit here was to Registan Square to see the world famous mosque and madrassa; these are the pictures that everyone sees of Samarkand and the square is truly breath-taking. You know you’re going to be taken to see these famous buildings, but nothing, and I mean nothing, prepares you for the size, grandeur, splendour and blue-ness of the place. People are absolutely dwarfed by these beautiful buildings arranged on three sides of a square. We wandered around, in and out of the three buildings, which now also house little shops and a museum. The decoration on the buildings is out of this world and one oohs and aaaahs at the beauty of it all. It’s all a bit much to take in and we actually went a second time, in early evening when the light was better for taking photos.
From there we went to Tamerlain’s mausoleum, which was also very blue but doesn’t take long to look around.
SHAKRISABZ, aka KESH, founded more than 2,700 years ago
It’s a long drive from Samarkand to Shakrisabz because it involves a mountain pass that is not accessible to buses or minibuses because of the tight turns, so you have to go around a mountain rather than over it. I wanted to stop for a coffee and a loo on the way. We found a 3* hotel, very western looking, and went in. Well, they had western loos and we could have had coffee, but not with milk; it seemed there was NO milk in the entire hotel. It transpired that this was because it was the end of the tourist season, as it was getting progressively hotter each day. So, no coffee but endless water, which you absolutely do need to keep drinking.
Here are the remains of the Ak Saray palace. It is set in wonderful grounds with a 2km walkway, down which one can amble and admire the surrounds. There are now apartments on either side of the walk way but they really don’t diminish the whole thing; indeed, they add to the serenity of the place. It was very, very quiet when we were there which made it an absolute joy, one could admire the statue of Tamerlain and the palace in which he never lived in peace. There is also a shop belonging to the chap who actually discovered how the palace had looked. It took him 2 years to build an exact replica. We also did a couple of tombs there, but by then my brain was on overload so nothing went in. I blame the heat!
Back we headed to Samarkand, ready to go to the Bibi Khanum Mosque the following day. There is a lovely story about this mosque, but I’ll let you Google it. In the middle of the courtyard here is a huge stone book rest for a Quran. Following this, we went to the Shah-i-Zinde Necropolis, accessed by climbing some huge steps up to a ‘lane’ where all sorts of famous women were buried. We also visited the Ulugh Beg observatory, or what remains of it, and the museum that is there. Ulugh Beg features in many of the stories we were told; he was a seriously clever chap.
SAMARKAND to BUKHARA
This is a drive through not a lot, except for the wonderful Rabati Malik Caravanserai on the Kyzyl Kum desert highway. This was built originally in the 11th century and has been heavily restored, but is none-the-less impressive. The caravanserai on the Silk Route were like coaching inns that existed here. The caravan would stop there, people would exchange news, ideas, trade goods and so on. You can often see the remains of rooms behind the grand entrances. This one was lovely, especially as we saw a European Roller there, a very beautiful bird.
On the road we stopped off at the Avicenna museum, at my husband’s request. This was really lovely, a wonderful museum with a very knowledgeable curator. There’s lots of good stuff in there about Ulugh Beg and other scientists who were making amazing discoveries centuries ago.
Although we were really keen to go to Bukhara it felt a little like Blackpool. We stayed in a ’boutique hotel’ which although interesting, wasn’t really our sort of place. Bukhara is quite small and a walking tour takes in everything. We went to a functioning madrassa but by now, they all look the same though the patterns on the walls may be different.
But here we went to THE carpet factory. Oh, Bukhara carpets, they are just wonderful. We saw the girls making the carpets and were impressed. They employ no-one under 18. There are a set number of patterns and each girl can choose which pattern she wants to do and then chooses the colours she wants to use, so although there may be many carpets of the same pattern, each is different because of the colours. And the carpets are made of camel wool, sheep wool and silk and vary from about $200 to $40,000. We were wowed by the carpets and I confess, I bought a little silk one. It is incredibly beautiful, far too beautiful and small to be walked on, so it sits on my piano stool and only my bottom may sit on it. Supposedly it will last 6 generations, which it certainly will if I’m the only one that sits on it. My children will have strict instructions that even if they don’t like it, it’s not to go out of the family, not after the price I paid!
We also went to a bazaar which was very like other bazaars, though cleaner and definitely just for tourists.
Finally, we went to the The Ark. This seems to be a town within a town and has huge walls that go for a long way, encompassing the town that was within. Interestingly, this is now a great tourist attraction but when my mother went to Bukhara, 34 years ago, she never mentioned it and it wasn’t anything to go and see.
BUKHARA to KHIVA
This was a very long road through the desert. We saw the odd prairie dog as we drove along this terrible road surface until we got to the Russian concrete block road, with gaps in the middle rail where one could do a U-turn to turn left off the road. We did 250km on the good road, with temperatures rising all the time. We had to actually cross the road, 2 lanes on either side, to get to the oasis stop for lunch, which meant going down a very gravelly dip of unmade road to go up again to the restaurant. It was huge and they must feed hundreds in tourist season. We had a very thin soup followed by somsa and the ubiquitous watermelon.
We travelled alongside the distant Freedom Bridge that separates Uzbekistan from Turkmenistan, drove through Gazli with its gas field and onto Urgench, where our driver got more and more worried by his inability to find any petrol. In the morning we had seen a double queue of about 200 cars waiting for a delivery of petrol to the garage. Finally we got to Khiva, a small town, and found our madrassa where we were to stay.
We were staying in the Khiva Madrassa, a madrassa turned hotel, which was interesting. It has an enormous half built minaret beside it which serves admirably as a landmark. The rooms were arranged around a courtyard that got the sun most of the day. It was incredibly quiet and peaceful and the 40 rooms are smallish without a window, but with a grill and air con. It was very comfortable and the restaurant, which was huge, did a lovely breakfast.
Khiva is also quite small so one can walk everywhere to see everything. We did the Ark, a fortress within a fortress with lots of handrail-less steps but fabulous views from the top. Sadly by now we were getting really ‘mosqued-out’ so the beautiful blue and white designs didn’t excite quite as much, and the heat didn’t help. The temperature reached 47 degrees.
We visited a harem and a wonderful wood carver, who carved the huge wooden pillars for mosques, palaces, and so on. They cost a fortune but look stunning.
KHIVA to NUKUS
This road goes through the Karakalpakstan desert, and it really did feel deserty. We stopped off to see some really old forts dating from the 2nd century BC, with mud bricks still recognisable and beautifully preserved. The air was incredibly dry and hot, and water was vital. Few people stop at these forts, which is a shame because they are really worth seeing.
There were many new chunks of carriageway, so we had to keep crossing to the other side as the old road was gravelled and waiting to be tarmacked.
We arrived at Nukus, which looked huge and flat. It has trolley buses, which was a novelty and looks really modern. There is a wonderful huge museum with real security to get in, and a $20 charge for taking photos, which we didn’t choose to pay. The ground floor had artefacts and the first floor had paintings of variable quality. It didn’t take long to do, though crossing the huge square outside in the heat was quite a task. The square was so huge that there were three sets of weddings photos being taken and no one got in anyone else’s way.
Our hotel was interesting in that we had the whole top floor, the fourth floor, to ourselves as it was the deluxe floor and I guess Uzbeks couldn’t afford it. There was a courtyard in which to eat that was so big it had a yurt in it, which people actually stay in. I suspect they would suffocate in the heat though!
From Nukus we did the 200km drive to go to Moynaq, where the Aral Sea used to be. Again the road was very straight and long through the desert. We saw many carts pulled by donkeys. There were also many cyclists on the wrong side of the road, but the roads were so bad that we also had to drive on the wrong side quite a lot. Moynaq has a museum that we hoped to visit but it seemed to be closed. They did open it for us, I guess visitors were a novelty, but everything had been put into one room and included some fairly scabby stuffed birds.
We drove to the car park where the Aral Sea used to be, but it is now 200km away. One can go down the many steps and along the walkway to the beach on which are stranded some sad, rusting fishing boats. The 41 degree heat settled on the shoulders like a dead weight and within 30 minutes, I was parched. Not difficult to imagine someone getting lost there and being desiccated rather quickly.
It was a sad place and we were not sorry to leave. Moynaq is empty, there’s no work there and few people live there now. No-one would move there. Driving back to Nukus just meant going through miles and miles of nothing with the odd village around.
We flew back from Nukus to have a whole day in Tashkent, which is the most amazing city. It was mostly destroyed in 1966 by a huge earthquake and the Russians rebuilt it in wonderful, really grand style. It has huge, wide boulevards, many parks, trees and fountains everywhere and gloriously beautiful buildings. It looks prosperous and amazingly clean. Lots to see there, including the market and the oldest Quran in the world which dates from the 7th century and weighs 22kgs because it’s written on deer skin, though 15 pages are missing.
This was the most amazing trip, though I’d possibly not call it a holiday. There is much to see and enjoy in Uzbekistan. You should try it!
Plov is the national dish and is rice cooked in lamb fat with veg and meat.
Mstava is the national soup and is delicious. They do a good line in soups which are really a meal in a bowl, many with noodles in one form or another.
Flat bread is the bread that is everywhere and is served with everything. Each area makes its own bread with a different stamp in the middle. It looks like those pizzas that have a raised, rounded edge and a flat middle. For me, the ones in Shakrabasz were the most delicious.
Coffee is a common drink, but black and strong.
Fruit is abundant and fabulous though not citrus or bananas. Watermelons are everywhere and delicious, much more flavoursome than those we get. Apricots, cherries, peaches and plums are all wonderful.
The currency is called is called s’om, pronounced sum. There are no coins, it is all paper money and at the time of writing, there are 5000 s’om to the dollar if you change money with your guide.
I love driving but I’d not like to drive in Uzbekistan. Signs are not over abundant and often don’t include distance. On two lane roads people drive in either lane and over take on either side. Many big roads have no road markings so it’s a free for all.
You’ll see lots of huge signs saying HAQ JOL or OK YOL which means happy road/safe journey.
End of June onwards, 35 degrees and rising.
CLEANLINESS and SECURITY
The country is extremely clean and western toilets are available. I was taken to a garage to use their loo once and had to walk through the work shop. The floor in there was spotless and you could have eaten off it! It was amazing. On the other hand, one eastern loo I was taken to was so disgusting, I couldn’t use it. Oh, and take loo paper and hand wash/gel, there is often neither paper nor soap.
Security is not taken lightly. There are umpteen security checks to get into the county and into various places, making the whole country feel very safe.