Uzbekistan is one of those countries which is opening up its borders to tourism, though most tourists don’t know about it yet. While inside the country there are still heavy restrictions on what you can and can’t do; Couchsurfing is almost impossible given the legal obligation to obtain registration slips in each hotel/hostel you visit, photographing state buildings/strategic locations such as bridges is prohibited, finding a double bed as an unmarried couple is difficult. Despite these limitations, the country still offers visitors some beautiful sights, which you might just have to yourself, a feat that is becoming increasingly difficult in our world afflicted with wanderlust.
A one month visa for a UK citizen costs about £50, whereas for Americans its somewhere in the vicinity of $160. The procedure at the London Embassy was very straightforward, I didn’t even need to provide evidence that I had bought flight tickets. I arrived a month later, flying from Almaty in Kazakhstan to Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital city. Tashkent is surprisingly different to Almaty. Whilst Almaty is grey and vegetables are hard to come by, Tashkent is a green city, boasting many parks and streets aligned with trees whose shade provides a respite from the heat. Though mainly based in Tashkent, I have been able to get a taster of what this country has to offer.
The cities along the old Silk Road evoke imagined recreations of bygone times, the feelings described by Italo Calvino in his book The Invisible Cities, a book which also describes the transience we experience upon entering into a new city as a traveller.
“For those who pass it without entering, the city is one thing; it is another for those who are trapped by it and never leave. There is the city where you arrive for the first time; and there is another city which you leave never to return.”
Bukhara’s old town is pleasingly contained, so one might forget that that the city exists in the current day. The old town constitutes an intricate system of narrow, dusty alleyways which pose a challenge to ordinary orientation; every so often you turn a corner and are met with the sight of an imposing, awe-inspiring madrasah, embellished muqarnas shimmer in the bountiful light that graces this part of the earth. What was once an important cultural centre for Islamic theology during the Medieval period and a major stop on the Silk Road now lies somewhat forgotten, gathering dust while those with a burning sense of wanderlust seek out undiscovered places elsewhere to no avail.
Samarkand is a different type of city; without the same pleasing nucleus and contained centre as Bukhara, it is difficult to remove ourselves from the present. The mosques and madrasahs are interspersed around the new city that has been built up around them. Walking around, I reflect that it is probably easier to live in Samarkand, the city exists on multiple levels. It doesn’t just bask in its beautiful, cultural past, though it would have every right to do so given that it is one of the oldest inhabited cities in Central Asia, aside from having served as the capital of Timur’s empire in the 14th century. A two hour journey from Tashkent via the ultra comfortable speed train, the afrosiyob, Samarkand enjoys more tourism than Bukhara yet one can still find solitude amongst the ruins if you time it right.