Uzbekistan: Journey to the Silk Road and disappearing Aral Sea…

Why Uzbekistan?

Uzbekistan conjures up all kinds of images of the Silk Road, and also of a whole new continental area that we knew little about. Growing up in New Zealand we didn’t learn much about times of the Soviet Era, or about the stretch of its reign; perhaps it feels too far away, or too burdensome to talk about, but we were curious now to find out what today is like for the cities of the Silk Road, and to learn more about how it had been.

We pictured deserts, camels, unrivalled Islamic architecture and the opportunity for adventure if we sought to take it…


What we loved most…

Uzbek food. So good we gave it a post on its own!

Exploring Tashkent

Finding our feet in Tashkent didn’t take long. Once we mastered the way of waving down any private car (anyone can double as a taxi) we fell in love with the colours and vibes of Central Asia. We found our way to Hast Iman Square for a first view of Silk Road architecture, and then made our way to Chorsu Bazaar. The Bazaar quickly became our favourite place in Tashkent, and we returned three more times; more so for the atmosphere, but we went there to stock up on dried fruit, breads, and snacks to take with us on our travels.

The entrance to Chorsu Bazaar

In Tashkent we also became regulars at the local swimming pool and water park that was within walking distance of our hostel!


Trip to the disappearing Aral Sea

First up was some seriously mad planning… Picture us at 3:00pm, boarding an ex-Soviet era train in Tashkent with the temperature already reading 43°C having made the mad plan to take the overnight train across the desert to Nukus; the other side of Uzbekistan!

We made it!  I had officially decided it must definitely be character-building, bracing ourselves for seventeen hours of heat and rumbling tracks across desert. But it was awesome! We met with some other travellers (literally the only two non-locals on the train), had lots of laughs AND the temperature even dropped to 32 °C (pretty much subtropical); and, we found a yurt on arrival!

Next, we headed to the desert! Our hotel helped us to find a driver, and we spent a full day exploring ruins in the Republic of Karakalpakstan, close to the Turkmen border, and shopping at the Nukus Bazaar (step away from the bread, Sarah!). 

We didn’t actually know it before, but this part of Uzbekistan is an autonomous republic; it even has a different flag and dialect. [We thought that was kind of fitting with our own identity challenge in Central Asia, which is a very serious one… No one understands when we say ‘NEW ZEALAND!’ AND, it gets even more serious, as we resorted to saying ‘AUSTRALIA’ three times yesterday, to explain our way geographically from there!].

From Nukus, we had organised a tour with Timur from Sanat Travel Experts to spend three days making the journey to the Aral Sea and Muynak, and set off north, towards the Kazakh border and the famous ‘disappearing Aral Sea’.

Gavin and I saw it on a documentary a few years ago and were shocked/fascinated and horrified, trying to imagine how such damage could have been caused by human hands. Only 10% of the original sea is left. It was once the fourth largest lake in the WORLD, and is now one of the most emblematic environmental disasters of the WORLD. It has been losing water for over half a century – ever since Soviet engineers began diverting the rivers that fed in to it, in order to grow cotton in the desert. 

[This is why we have made such a trek across the desert to quite literally the middle of nowhere; to see the Aral Sea for ourselves, and to try and figure a way to explain the scale of all that to our kids…].

It took an entire day and over seven hours of driving to reach the shore of the Aral Sea from Nukus, 400km away. But it was so worth it.

Our yurt camp, just back from the receding shore line, with the most incredible vantage point to ponder sunrise looking out over the Aral Sea.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of finally standing there and feeling what literally was once the sea floor underfoot. It’s beautiful, but overwhelming; and SAD. The damage is IRREVERSIBLE. 

Satellite images show the horrendous difference in twenty years. For our visit almost another ten years after that, there is only the far left ‘lake’ of water left – that is the part we visited; the only really visitable part… 

We sat watching the sun go down thinking the dried up sea itself was kind of metaphorical. Almost like looking out at the grand plan of the Soviet, and all the dried up dreams and abandoned ambitions for the mass empire that was once planned…

After 7:00pm: playing at sunset on the salty cracks of the now shoreline.

On the second day we arrived just in time for sundown over the ‘boat graveyard’ at Muynak. We had the place to ourselves and wandered around the line-up of old ships while these two happily played ‘captains’ until the sun set! I think climbing over these huge ships just sitting stuck in the sand made it easier for all of us to understand the scale of what has happened. These old ships were anchored in what was once the biggest fishing port of the Aral Sea. It only took ten years and the water level had disappeared entirely from the Muynak area, leaving the port high and dry, and these boats more than 165km from water.

Its a huge trip out and back from Nukus, but the boys rocked the journey out there, and it was so cool to see them in explorer-mode. The deserts, camels, off-road 4WDing, and camp cook-up definitely suited two little boys, and the adventure to get out there made the what was already a moving and memorable trip even more special.

We can really highly recommend Timur from Sanat Travel Experts, and our driver Arnold in Nukus who took us to the Aral Sea. Both were absolutely fantastic! Timur was amazing right from the start, in communicating with us a few months in advance and helping us to book train tickets to get to the tour in the first place. The trip to the Aral Sea is an expensive one, but for us it was one of our most memorable memories. Definitely get in touch with them if you are dreaming of a trip to Uzbekistan, and especially to see the last of the Aral Sea…


We were adopted by an Uzbek family!

We met Aslbek, a student from Samarkand, when we first arrived in Tashkent two weeks ago. He told us that when we got to Samarkand his family would like to show us their part of Uzbekistan, and take us to their ‘paradise’ in the mountains of Urgut.

Wow. Wow. And wow. We spent two days with them, met the entire extended family, shared so many new Uzbek foods, and as he said, they took us right out of Samarkand to the mountains of Urgut. It is absolutely stunning; the most incredible experience; and the kind of travel memories and emotions that can’t truly be captured any other way.


Samarkhand Bread

The most sacred of Uzbek bread, and a special memory of the time we found ourselves spending the best part of a baking day with a fourth generation family of Uzbek bread bakers!

The bread is baked in a clay oven and so is always round and flat, and each region has a different style. The Samarkand bread good to eat for up to three years, and weighs up to 3 kilos!

It’s hot inside and out, but the baker puts on long sleeves, trousers, a mask and a head cover (reasons to follow…) and wets the underside of each loaf by hand, so that it will stick to the inside wall of the tandyr (clay oven).

And a very different tradition… but one we enjoyed trying: the bread is so hot and the crust is so thick and firm, they put the first loaf of hot bread in water to soften – its amazing! (Still sounds strange, but it hardly dampens the soft bread inside).


Khiva

I think Khiva conjures up all the images of the iconic Silk Road, exceeding even what we had imagined!

It quite literally is like a giant walled city made out of sand in the middle of the Urgench desert. And how cool is our Guesthouse! It looks like it’s from a different millennia! Gavin reckons it looks like we stepped straight into a movie set… 

Our guesthouse inside the old city walls of Khiva

I think I agree!

The Blue Minaret of Khiva; this is definitely one of the most iconic sights. The base of the tower is enormous, but it was intended to be much taller. It stands at 29m high and half-finished, as the construction was stopped. There are several theories as to why this was; legend has it that the Khan realised that when the minaret was completed, people would be able to see into his harem. [Gavin said that’s just common sense – you gotta watch where you build those towers…!] 


Where we stayed…

  • Tashkent: Topchan Hostel [incredible breakfast, trendy layout and spaces, really clean shared bathrooms, amazing staff – helped with anything and everything, shared kitchen immaculate. Highly recommend!].
  • Nukus: Jipek Joli Inn [great location in Nukus; great breakfast, really friendly staff, walking distance to markets and museum. In-house restaurant and convenience store across the road].
  • Aral Sea: Yurtstay (organised by Sanat Tours)
  • Muynak: Homestay (organised by Sanat Tours)
  • Khiva: Guest House Khiva Yoqut [incredible location! Right inside the old city walls. Nice breakfast, really friendly family owners – took us fishing and even took me to the post office to send something home!].
  • Bukhara: Samani Bukhara [lovely courtyard breakfast; great central location; spacious room; lovely family owners plus friendly extended family and kids].
  • Samarkhand: Hotel Ishonch [walking distance to centre; not many suitable restaurants close by].
Our room in Topchan Hostel, Tashkent

Getting around

In Tashkent, pretty literally any car can be a taxi. There are also authorised taxi’s with a sign on their roof, but ‘independent’ taxis means that you can wave down any private car if they are willing to stop, and offer then a taxi fare if they are going in your direction. The local custom is to simply stand by the side of the road with your arm extended downward and slightly away from the body. It works!

From Nukus to Khvia, we booked a driver through our hotel. He turned out to be awesome, and we stopped at some ruins on the way and went out for lunch with him in a little yurt-style restaurant on the outskirts of Urgench.

Getting from Khiva to Bukhara we flew. We then took a fast train from Bukhara to Samarkand, and back to the capital, Tashkent. The train is easy to navigate, but we ended up asking the tour operator Timur, who booked our Aral Sea tour, if he could help us with tickets for the fast train. We were very grateful for his help and it made the trip much smoother!


One challenge from Uzbekistan…

On our first day in Tashkent we were introduced to ‘Plov’. Aside from bread, this is the staple dish of Uzbekistan. It is similar to Indian pilaf, but the term ‘plov’ covers all of Central Asia, with each region having their own variation. Uzbek plov is cooked with rice, fresh mutton or beef, carrot, chickpeas, raisins, onions and vegetable oil. And it’s delicious! 

The size of the plov cauldrons was unbelievable. They have five on the go at once, and serve 500 people at a time!

Well, this cheeky little face dropped a piece of LEGO into a giant pot of plov. Not just on the floor beside the pot, or under the table… but into the biggest pot of plov in the place. 

It felt like everything was happening in slow motion, after another diner saw it happen and called over a waiter. Next minute Oscar’s having a tantrum on the floor; the other diner is talking furiously in Russian; and the waiter is trying to locate the piece of LEGO with a 2m long cauldron spoon. 

They found the piece of LEGO, and the tantrum eventually stopped. I wanted to sink into a little hole away from the horrified glares of other childless-diners; but, the plov was worth the stay. Another one for the travel stories that WILL be funny later on…


Saying goodbye to Uzbekistan…

Making the trek right out across the desert, and back along the old Silk Road has definitely been a circuit that has really allowed us to see some of the highs and lows of an empire.The cities have such an incredible display of Islamic architecture that is so different to what we have seen so far, and so well preserved. The buildings alone evoke such vivid images of the Silk Road you can almost smell the camel caravan unloading their goods and being hobbled for the night! 
Making it out to the Aral Sea was a humbling and big learning experience, and that coupled with amazing food and all the people we met along the way, have definitely put Uzbekistan in our top three! But goodbye; for now, Uzbekistan…

 [I guess I had never imagined we’d really be sitting in a yurt in Uzbekistan – and what we’d look like if we were!] 
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