By David Rich
Uzbekistan, hapless heroic Uzbekistan, bedeviled by one of the world’s most regimented police states, offers Central Asia’s most incredible and truly astounding sites so dazzling that eyes glaze in wonder.
These marvels span the country, World Heritage cities strung seriatim to form three police state jewels.
Tourists are little affected by the antics of the current petty dictator, Islam Karimov, who continues to gain in popularity from a mere 92% plurality in the 2000 election to an awesome 99% in the 2005 election.
Locals and tourists alike must show a passport to buy a ticket for trains surprisingly comfortable and fast.
Save Your Receipt!
Tourists are required to obtain registration receipts for each night spent in the country, signed by the proprietor of each hotel; woe to the tourist who loses or forgets to obtain a registration slip.
As one hotelier told me, for them bozos who lose a hotel receipt the government will (euphemism for) mess with their minds and pluck their pockets. However, all hotelkeepers are happy to provide substitutes for missing or mislaid lodging receipts.
In 2002 President Karimov ingratiated himself with the US and NATO by providing air bases for servicing the Afghan War on Terror, giving Senor Karimov ample excuse for excising the terrorists in his midst, aka political opponents.
The honeymoon with the West ended abruptly on May 13, 2005 when Karimov’s police force fired on civilians demonstrating for the release of radical Islamists disguised as ordinary businessmen, killing an estimated thousand folks who will no longer dissent.
The resulting flap and Karimov’s blockage of a UN investigation found all foreign NGOs and journalists expelled from Uzbekistan, leaving the occasional rogue reporter, such as myself, to puzzle out truth on the ground.
A Grand Tradition
Uzbekistan may be the last country on earth to require hotel receipts, passports for domestic travel and an internet throttled worse than China’s but it’s simply preserving a grand tradition of tyranny that originated with Alexander the perfectly Great and continued with Genghis the fabulous Khan, Timur (Tamerlane) the less than Benevolent, Nasrullah Khan, the Butcher, and Josef Stalin, the butcher supreme.
As one local told me, We have no mafia in Uzbekistan; instead we have police. Indeed, police clog the highways stopping cars at random in every town.
Three Great Jewels
The Uzbeks may have enjoyed few moments of domestic peace or tranquility but they’ve produced three great jewels of antiquity, names that reek of historical opulence: Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.
The jewel of jewels is Samarkand with four mind-boggling World Heritage sites. The first and foremost fluoresces in the heart of the old city, the Registan: three domed fortresses masquerading as turquoise medressas face each other in stunning opulence. For those fond of dropping names:
Yes, darling, just last week I popped over to Samarkand for tea in the marvelous Registan, the turquoise-domed medressas of Sher-Dor, Tilla-Kari and Ulugbek, don’t you know?
Such a soliloquy is guaranteed to knock other social climbers on their scarcely-traveled behinds, particularly those unfamiliar with the impressive Khanym Mosque that on the outside looks like a sultan’s dream but is entirely vacant inside.
Shimmering blue and aquamarine tiles cover the multiple mosques of Shah-i-Zinda and the Guri Amir Mausoleum where Timur lies buried, his contemporaries sighing, “Finally!”
Off the Deep End
Samarkand was a city of madness for Alexander the Great. There in a fit of anger he killed his top general, Clietus, and was smitten by Roxanna, hot daughter of a local arch-enemy.
Alexander went off the deep end after snagging Roxanna (compare Steve Martin in the movie), dressing as an oriental pasha and demanding that his troops prostrate themselves before his grand highness.
The ruffian Greek and Macedonian soldiery blew a raspberry in mocking unison, chanting, Alex, Bullocks, Get a Life.
Samarkand has worked a spell throughout history. But don’t believe a word of the legend that claims the Prophet Daniel’s body, interred locally and elsewhere, continues to grow an inch a year; he’d now be quite substantially longer than Pinocchio’s nose.
The Kalon Minaret
Stop number two on the whirlwind tour of Uzbekistan’s marvels is Bukhara, a melding of souvenir shops, overpriced restaurants and the Kalon Minaret, at 47 meters (160 feet), the tallest building in Asia for eons from 1129 C.E., towering over colorful mosques, medressas and an excellent bar-restaurant with Sarbat beer on draft for $.75 a foaming pint.
The highly touted Ark, fortress housing the hotshot politicians of its day, was a drab disappointment enhanced by a grossly overpriced admission.
Small isolated Buhkaran gems include the ancient wooden mosque of Bolo-Hauz right across the boulevard from the Ark and little Char Minar with four smashing towers of splendid emerald tiles.
Khiva, the third and final stop on the tour, is a museum town, a former slave market and continuing desert oasis beckoning caravans of captive war prizes, now replaced by stretch limos.
Old town is packed with mosques, tombs, palaces, squirrelly alley-ways and sixteen medressas, all containing tacky tourist shops.
The norm for Uzbekistan’s phenomenal World Heritage cities is to gussy them up with unsavory knickknack shops in every mosque, tomb, palace and medressa, a paean to rampant capitalism as a theoretical bulwark against radical Islam.
Khiva was allegedly founded by Shem, Noah’s eldest son and ancestor of all Jews. Jewish princesses, to regain piety, should visit Khiva and marvel at Kalta Minor, the short and relatively fat minaret that sparkles at the old town entrance, the Islom-Hoja Minaret with turquoise and red tile bands gracing its 57 meters (190 feet), Uzbekistan’s tallest, and the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum with its lustrous jade domes, among dozens of others crammed into the multiple wonders of Khiva.
Forced slavery has now been replaced in a celebration of voluntary slavery as successive wedding parties, after disgorgement from slinky black limos, line up to march gravely into Khiva for enslavement-photo mementos.
I bravely faced-up to the police mentality of Uzbek border guards while transiting into Turkmenistan, a country to which you should never go because it’s a complete waste of money and time, lorded over by a worse megalomaniacal dictator than the one in Uzbekistan.
But the guards snickered at my hotel receipts showing my residence for every night in their lovely country. The police state may be losing its touch but its jewels remain burnished for easy and intimate viewing around the edges of every gimcrack shop.
When You Go:
Fly to Uzbekistan’s cosmopolitan capital city of Tashkent directly from practically anywhere in Europe for about $600 roundtrip via Air Baltic and other budget carriers. See whichbudget.com.
Accommodation in Uzbekistan is excellent and inexpensive, even in tourist-magnet cities.
In Tashkent stay at the train station (Komnata Otdikha) a double $22 and you may draw a suite for the same price, like I somehow managed.
In Samarkand stay at the Emir B&B for $30 an ensuite double and enjoy a reflection of Guri Amir in the front window.
A relatively new and friendly hotel in Bukhara, barely south of the main Lyabi-Hauz square, is the Grand Nodirbek, also $30 including breakfast.
In Khiva I highly recommend the Meros B&B next to the northwest wall of old town for $30 a double with sumptuous breakfast.
Trains from Tashkent to Samarkand (4 hours – $6) and Bukhara (sleeper 12 hours – $18) are fast and efficient. Otherwise shared taxis are the best mode of domestic travel.
David Rich is GoNOMAD’s most intrepid writer, braving blizzards, monsoons, desert heat and State Department travel advisories to visit the world’s most out-of-the-way places from the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan to the wilds of Borneo to the Harley-Davidson Rally Week in Sturgis, South Dakota. He lives in Glendale AZ where his latest passion is flying his own plane. Click the link to see all of his books, including RV the World, The Isis Affair and Myths of the Tribe on Amazon.