Uzbekistan is a country that has enjoyed a cult-like status for travelers. It is about as off the beaten path as you can get, yet at the same time - quite safe. It has plenty to offer; pristine monuments in some of the worlds oldest inhabited cities, yet unspoiled by hordes of tourists. The country, like most of polyglot Central Asia, is rich in culture and tradition - filled with bustling bazaars and centuries-old majestic mosques and mausoleums. In Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva; Uzbekistan offers three of the world's oldest and most historic cities. These well preserved urban centers serve as testament to ancient silk route's main trading centers and are the legacy of Emir Tamerlen's Timurid dynasty.
Uzbekistan has never been an easy place to get to. Not only is it the world's only double-landlocked country (Liechtenstein notwithstanding); but one must endure some abrasive Soviet-style bureaucracy in order to get a visa. Although a time-consuming and also pretty expensive process, with limited help from the Uzbek consulate in Dubai, this was finally acquired. Tashkent (Uzbekistan's capital) airport is also notorious for all sorts of scams and tricks from the officials themselves, although this has been cracked down on a great deal recently.
Once you do get all your appropriate paper work and documents in order, Uzbekistan reveals itself as an intriguing destination. While the Russian's moved the city's status as the nation's administrative capital to Tashkent in the 1930's, Samarkand (Samarqand) remains Uzbekistan's cultural heart. I arrived just as the city was about to celebrate its 2,750th birthday. Samarkand remains a fascinating place to explore amongst its highlights are the Registan (which means "sandy place" in Uzbek), which remains the heart of ancient Uzbekistan. Comprising of three madrassahs (Islamic holy schools), the Registan was built between the 15th and 17th centuries and is considered one of the most grandiose monuments in all of Central Asia. The nearby ostentatious Bibi-Khanym Mosque, dedicated to Emir Timur's Mongol wife, is another highlight. Lucky enough, my host family lived just across the road from Bibi-Khanym.
The moving Shah-i-Zinda, or "Tomb of the Living King" is a fascinating collection of mausoleums, where mostly the extended family of Emir Timur are buried - as well as Queam ibn Abbas, the prophet Mohamed's cousin, who supposedly brought Islam to the region. The Ulugh Beg Observatory was considered state of the art when it was constructed in the 1420s and its remains and adjoining museum are also worth a look, as is the Gur-e Amir tomb - where Emir Timur is buried.
To see the photos taken from the trip, click here: