Uzbekistan and its ancient cities

Back on the Camel Trail.

In the last two weeks we have crossed the border into Uzbekistan, watched the silk carpet making process, camped out with camels in the desert, visited imposing silk road cities, tasted Uzbek wine (hmm), learned to cook Plov (yum) and pondered over spending a small fortune on a handmade silk carpet (eek).  This trip couldn't be more of a contrast from our previous leg in Kyrgyztsan and everyone is in agreement that the two have complimented each other really well and that we are very pleased the energetic hiking & camping section was first and the lazy, hazy, sunny  swimming pool days through Uzbekistan came later on!

It's hard to get excited about the scenery of Uzbekistan, from crossing the border, the wonderful green forests and mountains of Kyrgyzstan come to an abrupt halt, making way for the open desert, lots of industry at first and then a whole load of open land.  However, what you do get here, the incredible ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, with their elaborate blue and turquoise tiled mosques, madrassas and mausoleums have to be seen to be believed.  Stopping en route to check out the old Caravanserais built to provide refuge for traders, the idea of the Silk road feels much more tangible again - similar to our time traversing China's Wild West.  Here we are, in the footsteps of Marco Polo, visiting the (very ruined) fort of Alexander the Great in Nurata and Tamerlane's Mausoleum in Samarkand. This is the place where epic  battles were fought, where the Mongols stormed  cities and Ghenghis Khan terrorised and conquered Central Asia.

Our Guide Jalol absolutely lives up to his reputation as a great guide, he is extremely knowledgeable and more importantly communicates his country's history brilliantly. I think my brain is a little overloaded with all the information, so it's important to combine learning and sightseeing with a healthy dose of carpet shopping and afternoon beer drinking.

In Bukhara, on a sunny afternoon and after a lunch of Shashlik (for the meat eaters) and Greek Salad (for me), we walked around the huge fort known as the Ark, close to the Zindon Prison and the 'Bug Pit' prison cell.

It's a really impressive and imposing sight, made more interesting with a bit of reading about the history of the place.  This is the spot where, in the early 19th Century two British officers, Connelly and Stoddart were thrown into the 'Bug Pit' in Bukhara's dungeon for upsetting the Khan, left to rot for years before being unceremoniously beheaded - yikes!  Fortunately times have changed and the Uzbeks now provide a very warm welcome.  We've had a lovely evening enjoying a masterclass in creating Plov, a popular staple in this part of the world, made of rice, carrots, raisons and meat. Sitting around in a lovely courtyard in the home of an Uzbek family we fill up on tasty snacks, salads and of course, the Plov which went down very well!  I should say that Central Asia is not really a haven of vegetarian cuisine, in fact as you can well imagine, it's a very foreign concept, so I would advise any fellow veggies out there to come prepared to eat a lot of salad and bread, which actually is delicious!

In Bukhara, an interesting (rather than delicious) night out is wine tasting in an old caravanseria. Our hostess gives a description of 8 very different red, white and dessert wines (all translated by Jalol), all made in Uzbekistan.  She is quick to point out that the Uzbek wine industry is very young (only 20 years) and is developing and improving all the time (which is good news).  She is enthusiastic and loves her wine - though there are a few questionable claims about the medicinal properties of the wine - for example giving kids and the elderly a bit of wine and water on a morning for good health and curing radiation poisoning...interesting, but the good news is drinking wine adds years onto your life - so let's go with that!  Bukhara and Khiva are both really accessible, and you're able to wander and explore the towns easily, allowing you to get the best photos at dawn and dusk.

Another favourite stop on this journey for me was camping out in Yurts in the Kyzylkum desert.  During the day we made a stop at the very ruined fort in Nurata, then went for a welcome swim in the Ayder Lake near our Yurt stay and a few of the group had a quick ride on a camel.  Afterwards we sat down around a camp fire, listened to some local music, before getting the guitar out and singing a few (load and slightly out of tune) songs ourselves, again the Uzbek Vodka helped this along.  Great to have a break from the cities and to enjoy the (not so peaceful) desert. Next stop, Turkmenistan, whose reputation for strict border controls and lengthy checks have us slightly concerned about spending all day in customs!