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Review - The Hidden Gem Uzbekistan

Travel to Uzbekistan - bukhara

IF souvenirs are your holiday spending soft spot it is may well be best to skip the next few lines. And if your bartering skills aren’t as sharp as they once were, you should probably dodge some of the tempting wares on offer around Uzbekistan’s treasured cultural addresses.

Rich with Silk Route heritage and epic historic landmarks, this former Soviet Union nation is abundant with elaborate ceramics, beautiful ethnic fashion, cool vintage pots, hand-crafted brassware, silk creations, exotic instruments - even Christmas decorations - all ready to relieve you of a million Uzbek Som and more. Then again, with US$1 buying you about 11,300 units of the local currency, you’ll frequently feel cash rich during a visit to this fascinating Central Asian country.

An intoxicating blend of Islamic and old Communist traits, from architecture to language, ancient heritage to modern aspirations, its merchants also know how to grab visitor attention. Unlike many global tourist addresses, there’s mostly measured pressure to buy, although some traders in beautiful Bukhara were as insistent as they were speculative with their lofty opening prices.

Known for his skillful blending of old carpet segments into attractive new hangings, textile artisan Djamol Temirov also makes a living finding fresh homes for vintage metal jugs. Provenance can be a little hazy, so maybe take a snapshot of your purchase in situ along with your receipt in case of questions on your airport exit from Uzbekistan.

Bukhara is like a romantic open museum with its generous array of sites, including numerous well-preserved mosques, madrassas and bazaars, dating largely from the ninth to the 17th centuries, all within easy reach of numerous well-priced small hotels. However, even with the likes of stunning Abdulaziz Khan Madrassah and Kalon Minaret, the destination lives in the shadow of better-known Samarkand, two hours away via an efficient modern train network.

Uzbekistan’s second city is home to the magnificent Bibi-Khanym Mosque, rated by medieval historians among Islam’s most architecturally significant. Built in the 15th century and later blighted by neglect and earthquakes, the huge structure was extensively restored during Uzbekistan’s Soviet era.

Bibi-Khanym has its own competition, however, in both scale and beauty from magnificent near neighbour Registan Square. The Unesco World Heritage site and headline act in Samarkand’s inventory of architectural treasures upholds its heart of the city role - it bustles now with visitors as it surely did while serving as the venue for royal proclamations. Madrasahs that housed Islamic schools frame three sides of the square, recalling the influence of the Timurid Empire that once ruled much of Central Asia. Registan means ‘desert’ in Persian, but this beguiling site is anything but sparse. Imposing mosaic arches flanked by towering minarets open into courtyards, tranquil but for enthralled chatter and occasional fridge magnet sales pitches. At night, strategic illumination highlights stunning features best viewed from a raised platform positioned at the square’s open side.

Samarkand, and Uzbekistan generally, is a nascent destination for GCC tourists, according to Dmitry Karpov, General Manager of Hilton Garden Inn Samarkand. The city’s first international branded hotel is well located for trains, major sites including beautiful Shah-i-Zinda, and a smart new airport into which flydubai operates economy and business class services from DXB, along with routes to Uzbek capital Tashkent and Namangan. “Historically, we have not seen many visitors from UAE, but…we have seen increased inquiries from UAE-based travel agencies and tour operators,” says the boss of this bright, alcohol-free hotel. “Many people are excited to see an international brand in Samarkand, a sign of the city’s growth and development as a tourist destination.”

Not only does the majority Muslim populous make Uzbekistan compatible for UAE travelers, at around three hours flight time it befits shorter breaks, or longer stays. Business class on flydubai means a substantial meal, including delicious mustard chicken on our way out of DXB. Equally attentive service on the return leg included great crepes and eggs, too tempting to decline even on a 4.15am flight. Flydubai staff also ensured brisk passage through immigration on both sides. “Central Asia has become a fast-growing market and early on we realised the potential of having Uzbekistan on the flydubai network,” says Jeyhun Efendi, Senior Vice President, Commercial Operations and E-commerce at flydubai. “After launching Tashkent as our first destination in Uzbekistan in 2019, we saw the demand for travel increase between Uzbekistan and Dubai. In 2022, we expanded our network in the region by launching twice-weekly flights to both Namangan and Samarkand.”

A key tip to ensure a continued smooth trip is to book your onward Uzbekistan trains in advance, perhaps with your hotel concierge, as services between Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent sell out, not least the swish high-speed option.

In hotter weather, Uzbek capital Tashkent adds further family appeal with water parks and much greenery, balancing a rich portfolio of museums and cultural sites. The latter includes the newer but traditionally-inspired Minor Mosque, an Insta-friendly white marble riverside landmark accessible via a metro network, itself adorned with art and sculpture.

It throngs with locals, especially towards Chorsu Bazaar, a famous sprawling market selling seemingly everything any shopper could imagine. While there are some tourist stalls, visitor appeal lies largely in the eclectic trading bustle, including the bakery hall’s relentless bread-making action.

From here a decent walk or brief taxi ride reaches Hazrati Imam complex, an historic religious centre popular with kite-flyers and soon to be accompanied by the Centre of Islamic Civilisation. All are on a city tour 12-stop itinerary if you crave simpler passage. Join it outside the imposing Hotel Uzbekistan, where you’ll also find a competitive foreign exchange.

Both are close to Hampton by Hilton Tashkent, a fresh, stylish 175-room hotel well placed for exploring the striking Palace of International Forums and State Museum of the Temurids, art and history museums, and Amir Temur Square - featuring one of numerous impressive park-based statues.

If wet weather prevails there are more museums covering railways, geology, telecommunication, Olympic glory…even decorative pumpkins. The ubiquitous squash also features in Uzbekistan cuisine, which shares much tradition with Turkey - such as shashlik meat skewers - beside noodle and dumpling dishes influenced by China and Nepal. Popular Tashkent contemporary restaurant Afsona describes the diet as one of the “most colourful and richest in Central Asia”. While rice dish plov suggests otherwise, manti dumplings, pumpkin samsa, and laghman and shurpa soups, support the claim…alongside the need to visit Hampton by Hilton’s gym the following morning.

Return flydubai flights to Samarkand in cost from Dh1845, and Tashkent from Dh1,500.

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