Uzbekistan: What's it like to visit the historic Silk Road today?
What's it like to visit Central Asia's most historic trading route? Isabel Conway joins a group tour of Uzbekistan to find out
Pushed into motion, the camels break wind.
The chorus of back-firing is like the desert version of the Soviet-era Ladas we encountered on an earlier stretch of Central Asia's former Silk Road. Both have sulphurous exhausts.
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I'm told caravans of 1,000 camels once crossed the arid steppe lands of present-day Uzbekistan, carrying cargos of pearls and porcelain, gold and gunpowder, silk and spices.
Today, their tourist cargo includes me.
Throughout history, Uzbekistan has been a key stop-off on routes stretching from China to Rome, travelled by warriors and pilgrims, by nomads and merchants, over thousands of years. Sandwiched between five other 'Stans', the country was at the heart of Silk Road routes crossing mountains, snaking along fertile valleys and through endless desert.
I wanted to see how much had changed; how much remained the same. So here I am, on a camel, briefly penetrating the vast Kyzylkum Desert and exploring a little of a sandy expanse largely unchanged since its most famous visitor, Alexander the Great, passed through.
I expected to see adventurous backpackers and millennials here. But it is middle-aged people and retirees on escorted tours who are boosting tourism on Silk Road and cultural journeys. Haggling over rugs in Bukhara's bazaar, one couple says actress Joanna Lumley's popular Silk Road Adventure TV series inspired their visit.
My own, six-day tour combines several Silk Road destinations with a flavour of rural eco-tourism. We hike in remote hilly outposts of Sarmyshsoy and Sentob, for example - tucked away in Navoi province, where homestay tourism is only starting. The view from escarpments, where we climb over falling rocks to view petroglyphs of humans and animals carved into the rock many thousands of years ago, is wondrous, if a little scary.
Guided tours work well here. Aside from giving solo travellers like me a mix of escorted adventures, packages include transport and accommodation, and itineraries combine the best Silk Road landmarks with other attractions like a stay in a yurt or a camel safari.
What can you look forward to? Think intricately decorated Persian-era architecture, sites of ancient caravanserais (early roadside inns) and cultural and ethnic diversity in a country the size of France.
Over 90pc of Uzbekistan's population is Muslim. It's a conservative, patriarchal society but with striking differences to some of its Islamic neighbours. Women do not wear the hijab nor jilbaab, for instance, there's a noticeable fondness for the OTT Kardashian look in make-up, and current fashion is everywhere except rural enclaves.
Among the grandest in the Muslim world, Uzbekistan's mosques are not used widely. Nor does the Call to Prayer peel out from minarets - a consequence of former Soviet domination. I watch Muslim men wearing traditional embroidered tubeteika (hats) seated cross-legged on café cushions, knocking back neat vodka - another enduring legacy of its Soviet past.
Uzbekistan spent most of the past 200 years as part of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, before gaining independence in 1991. The country became a hermit kingdom under its dictator, President Islam Karimov - internationally ostracised for widespread abuses of human rights. Since Karimov's death in 2016, tourism has taken off - visa requirements for 46 countries, including EU member states, were abolished in 2018. Perhaps a consequence of being a police state for so long, it also happens to be one of the safest countries in the world for tourists.
In Uzbekistan, distances that cross large swathes of steppe are daunting. Some steep, rutted tracks we negotiate off the main highways would thrill and test the Top Gear team. Good train services operate between the cities, however, including a high-speed rail link from Tashkent to Navoi. Inexpensive domestic flights to Samarkand and Bukhara are options.
In the clamour to reach the UNESCO treasures of Samarkand and Bukhara, Tashkent - Uzbekistan's capital - is sometimes overlooked. Don't expect to find much colourful street life in Central Asia's largest city, flattened by an earthquake in 1966 and quickly rebuilt. The result is an interesting mix of stark Soviet Brutalist and classical Russian architecture, and restored 12th-century mosques.
Highlights include the city's magnificent Metro, a subterranean art gallery, extravagantly decorated with tonnes of marble, beautiful mosaic tiles and enormous chandeliers. Each station was given a different theme.
In the new city of Navoi, we enjoy delicious breads with Uzbek dishes (expect to pay around €10 for three courses). Plov, served everywhere, is the national speciality of rice topped with cooked vegetables, herbs and chunks of lamb. Each region has its version, including one using horse meat washed down with fermented mare's milk (koumiss).
Bukhara, 'the city of museums', is our last stop and the best one. It's the Silk Road in a nutshell, boasting more than 140 architectural monuments. Some, like the Kalyan Minaret, were built over 2,000 years ago. It is high season - late September - yet we find that Bukhara's stunning sights are surprisingly uncrowded.
That's another good reason to get to Uzbekistan. For now, you still have this enthralling country to yourself.
A romantic night in the desert at the Kyzylkum Safari camp will see you bed down in cosy yurts, eat traditional dinner, listen to local musicians around a bonfire, take a sunrise camel ride, and enjoy some phenomenal stargazing.
Fly with Uzbekistan Airways (uzairways.com) to Tashkent via London Heathrow, or with Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) via Istanbul. Silk Road tour operator Travel the Unknown does guided group itineraries, including a 14-day Uzbekistan Odyssey from €2,495pp ex. LHR (traveltheunknown.com/stans). lsabel was a guest of the Navoi Regional Government.
Where to stay
In Tashkent, try the five-star International Hotel (doubles from €113, ihthotel.uz). In Bukhara, the boutique hotel Komil Bukhara (komiltravel.com) has doubles from €61 B&B. See also uzbekistan.travel