This first post about the trip will be rather long as I imagine most of my readers may not be too knowledgeable when it comes to Uzbekistan and some information about the country may hopefully be of interest.
Here is first a map with some (very) approximate borders. We are in Central Asia. The country is surrounded by a number of ‘stan countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan.
I travelled by plane from the capital Tashkent to Khiva (via the nearby airport at Ourguentch), by bus to Bukhara, again by bus to Sharisabz, by car to Samarkand, by train back to Tashkent.
Here we can see that the country is largely occupied by deserts and step land. Rivers offer some greener land. Irrigation projects, especially during the 1960’s and 70’s, linked to cotton production, has led to the more or less total disappearance of the Ural Sea and general high soil salinity.
The history of the country is closely linked to the Silk Road, which during centuries assured the transmission of trade and culture between the West and the East – until the sea routes took over. The Silk Road took many ways, but Bukhara and Samarkand were always some kind of concentration points.
Some history facts about Central Asia and Uzbekistan: In ancient times the region was dominated by sedentary and semi-nomadic Iranian civilisations. Alexander the Great tried to conquer the region around 300 BC. Between the 5th and 10th centuries there was an expansion of Turkic peoples, including the Uzbeks, but also the Arabs arrived during the 7th century. Genghis Khan and the Mongols invaded – and devastated – the region during the 13th century. A Turko-Mongol tribal chieftain, Timur (Tamerlane) was at his death in 1405 at the head of an empire which covered also present Iran, part of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan… Timur was known for extreme brutality, but also imitated a Perso-Islamic culture and many of the architectural – restored - masterpieces we can see today date from his period. He also patronized physicians, scientists, artists… Timur is today somehow considered as the Father of the Uzbek Nation and his statue is to be found at many places. Descendants of the Khan-Mongols, split in different emirates, ruled until the arrival of Russians during the 19th century followed by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution and Uzbekistan and its neighbour countries were incorporated into the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan declared its independence in 1991. Uzbek is the official language but Russian is widely used.
The climate is of course very continental - hot summers, cold winters. Tourism is concentrated to spring and autumn.
Uzbekistan is a leading producer and exporter of cotton and gold and has great resources of gas, oil, coal, copper, silver, uranium… Unemployment is quite high, “saved” by strong family solidarity.
The country has some 30 million inhabitants. Close to 90% are Sunni Muslims, but obviously very moderate – you hardly see any burkas.
People are smiling, friendly and the selling of local products to tourists is done in a relaxed, non-aggressive way and with an impressive use of different languages.
Well, there is a lot more to be said, but I must stop now.
This first report will thus concentrate on Khiva.
Arriving by a local flight from the capital Tashkent to the city of Ourguentch, a thirty minutes’ drive will bring you to this old city and its central part, surrounded by a wall with foundations from the 10th century, but basically from the 17th century.
From the top of the wall, you have some excellent views of the town center (see also top picture).
Here are some further views of different mosques, madrasas (educational institutions), mausoleums… I refrain to tell you about the names and story behind all of these, but please notice the large “tower” which actually is the beginning of a gigantic minaret, which never has been completed. Although most buildings have been built, rebuilt, during the 18th 19th centuries and restored more recently, there are of course traces of older structures. The hypostyle (roof supported by columns) Djuna mosque contains 112 columns taken from ancient buildings.
There is a statue of Al-Xorazmy, a mathematician, astronomer and geographer (c 780-850) who obviously was born in or close to Khiva. Latin translations of his works during the 12th century introduced the decimal system to the Western world. He is considered as the original inventor of algebra.
Water supply is of course “modern” (although tourists should rather consume bottled water), but you can find some old dwells still in use.
An example of the local bread production.
In a museum you can see some examples of old costumes… Men still often wear the traditional Uzbek hats.
Some photos of local people.
Especially early mornings you can see a number of women sweeping the streets. In general, you can notice how streets and public places in Uzbekistan are extremely clean – no cigarette butts to be found on the ground.
In a next episode we take the road to Bukhara.