DAYS 49 – 58: UZBEKISTAN
From Turkmenistan you will cross the border into Uzbekistan. Road conditions permitting, you will drive to the edge of where the Aral Sea used to lie. In the 1960s the Soviet Union began an intense irrigation project to boost cotton growth in the region using the then vast sea as its source. The project led to the sea now shrinking to just 10% of its original size and today as you reach where its edge formerly was, you can see ships sitting incongruously in the middle of what is now a huge desert where you camp for the night.
Continuing on your overland tour through Uzbekistan, you find well preserved relics from the time when Asia was a centre of empire, learning, and trade along the famous silk route. Some of its cities have abundant old architecture, mosques and minarets cloaked with the mystery of the orient dating back thousands of years.
Your first Silk Road stop is in Khiva, one of the most noteworthy of the cities and towns of Central Asia. It is a unique monument town, completely preserved in the cultural style of the region, and is a World Heritage Site for its historical significance. It has more minarets than any other place in Asia, and the Juma Mosque, which has an amazing 218 ornate carved wooden columns, is another of the main attractions. You will spend at least a couple of nights here to explore the ancient madrassas, medinas, mausoleums and museums and soak up the unique atmosphere.
Continuing south, you bush camp out in the desert before reaching another town with much historical influence that was also on the great silk route: Bukhara. Bukhara is situated on a sacred hill, and was founded in the 13th century BC and it is home to over 350 mosques and some 100 Islamic colleges. It’s an attractive city with narrow streets, green parks and gardens and is a pleasure to wander around and there will be the opportunity for a bout of good-humoured haggling in the bazaar.
The Kyzylkum Desert is about 300,000 sq km and lies between the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya rivers. This is a vast arid plain with a number of isolated bare mountains rising to 900 metres and you travel across it on your way to Samarkand, the second largest city in the country. The history of Samarkand is about 2,500 years old making it as old as Babylon or Rome. Here you will have a couple of days to explore the splendid architecture such as the 15th century Bibi-Khanum Mosque which when it was built was considered to have the largest dome in the Muslim world. Today it stands next a noisy and colourful Oriental market. No trip here is complete without a wander around the three edifices of the Registan, once Medieval Samarkand’s commercial plaza and today quite possibly the most awesome sight in Central Asia.
From Samarkand you will drive northwards to Tashkent, the present capital of Uzbekistan. Although the city has always been an important international transport junction, unfortunately only a small part of its architectural past is preserved – due to the demolition of many historical and religious buildings after the revolution of 1917 and a massive earthquake in 1966. Some of the older buildings of interest are the 16th century Kukeldash Madrassa and the Kaffaili-Shash Mausoleum – amongst a choice of modern museums and Russian restaurants to pass the time in and keep the hunger at bay.