Situated in the heart of the ancient Silk Road, this Central Asian country might just be one of the world’s last undiscovered destinations.
Seated around an airy courtyard overlooking a mulberry plantation, our group of ten merry travellers are in high spirits. After all, here we are in fascinating Uzbekistan where we are being hosted by acclaimed miniature artist Toshev Davron to a private lunch at his residence.
The artist, who is based in the picturesque domed city of Bukhara – once upon a time a key trading town along the Silk Road – treats us to a scrumptious home cooked version of plov, the country’s national dish of rice pilaf with beef or lamb.
To work off the post-meal stupor, he leads us on a tour of the estate, demonstrating how mulberry stems are processed and polished into virtually indestructible paper on which he creates his intricate miniature paintings. He points out the pet rabbits whose fur is used to make the tiny brushes needed for the precise brushstrokes of his miniatures.
In his workshop, we observe his apprentices painting in miniscule details via a magnifying glass and learn that it can take months or years to complete one work. It is a rarefied honor to witness the process of creating fine art – and a privileged insight into this mythical country’s ongoing devotion to artisanship, even in these modern times.
Situated in Central Asia amidst the various “Stan” countries, Uzbekistan has been reforming its tourism industry since the current president Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016. Most recently, President Halimah Yacob made a state visit to Uzbekistan where she witnessed the exchange of a memorandum of understanding between the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore and Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism to develop tourism between both countries.
“Uzbekistan boasts a rich cultural heritage and stunning landscapes which are sure to appeal to visitors from around the world,” says Madam Halimah during a speech at a business forum held at Tashkent City Congress Hall in the capital city. “From the towering minarets of Bukhara to the majestic madrasas of Samarkand, it is no wonder that tourists arrive in droves every year to Uzbekistan to visit these iconic cultural sites.”
Still, during our week-long sojourn through the ancient highlights of Uzbekistan – Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva – there is a sense of exploring a lost world that time has only just begun to rediscover.
A Conqueror's Masterpiece
Having visited Samarkand just a few days before Madam Halimah’s state visit, I know exactly what she means when she describes this ancient city as majestic. It was built by Amir Timur, the country’s great conqueror who reigned from 1370 to 1405 and is where his body lies in the magnificent Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum. His empire stretched all the way to modern day Turkey and Pakistan. More than half a millennia later, many of the monuments he or his descendants built are still standing and the sheer scale and beauty of these buildings continue to make even the most jaded traveller gape in wonder.
There is none more so than the awe-inspiring Registan Square, an expansive plaza flanked by three imposing madrasas, the facades of each bearing incredible tiled murals that depict grand tales of yore. For example, the Sher-Dor Madrasah features the wild tigers that used to roam this city.
About fifteen minutes away is the iconic Bibi-Khanym Mosque, which was built in honor of Timur’s favorite wife. The largest of its kind in Central Asia, it features a massive tiled entrance and turquoise domes of intricate beauty.
My personal favorite though, has to be the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, home to dazzling mausoleums decorated in mosaic tiles in what must be fifty shades of blue from cyan to ultramarine. This is where nobility and royalty related to Timur are buried. Get there just before sunset for the best light for photographs. But after all that frenzy of content generation, do drop by the inner mausoleum of Qutham ibn Al-Abbas, the cousin of Prophet Muhammad, to rest the senses and savor a moment of quiet contemplation among other pilgrims.
From Samarkand, it is an easy two-hour ride on the Afrosiyob high speed train to Bukhara where we have our rendezvous with the master miniaturist Davron. Later, we head to the old town where merchants from around the world used to gather under the huge trading domes with all manner of goods.
Today, the centers of global trade have shifted elsewhere, but travellers continue to flock to these bazaars where craftsmen still offer an eye-popping variety of wares ranging from vibrant suzani embroidery to lush silk knotted carpets and colorful ceramics. Many of the items are handmade (I often spotted small workshops tucked at the back of shops) and the shopkeepers are generally willing to engage in a bout of gentle bargaining to close a deal.
My inner shopaholic is unable to resist the thrill of the hunt and I end up with an array of fascinating treasures including woven ikat scarves, suzani pouches, and somewhat inexplicably, a tooth-edged brass watermelon scoop.
Our final stop is Khiva, just an hour’s flight away from Bukhara on Silk Avia, a new no-frills domestic airline with spotlessly clean aircraft and comfortable seats. Legend has it that this desert town was built by a son of the biblical Noah after a vision came to him in his dreams. Today, the Ichan-Kala or inner walled city remains remarkably well-preserved with its beautiful turquoise tiled and sandstone buildings. In fact, it is often referred to as an open-air museum because of some 50 minarets, madrasahs, mosques, and monuments dotted within its premises.
Look out for the Juma Mosque which has 212 carved wooden columns, the oldest of which date back to the 10th century, while others have been slowly replaced over the millennia – a stark visual reminder of the passage of time within one small space.
For oodles of local charm, stay at Hotel Bankir Khiva, a new boutique hotel located five minutes from Ichan-Kala. It is co-founded by Singapore-based media personality and serial entrepreneur Timothy Go with his business partner, Khiva local Muhammadali Erkinov. The duo also runs Go Anywhere Tour, a travel operator specialising in Central Asian trips.
This chic bolthole straddles both modern comforts like high-speed internet, reliable hot water, and an excellent bed with elements of Uzbek culture and hospitality like a domed ceiling light fixture and a snack bar with local treats like pistachios and candy. Arguably best of all is the aromatic French press coffee served at breakfast since quality java is still a rarity in this tea-obsessed country.
Caffeine boost sorted, you might want to hire a guide for a walking tour. But if sightseeing fatigue hits, there is no shame in choosing to wander the inner city at leisure, as I did one lazy morning. Happily lost amid the winding alleys of Ichan-Kala, I certainly felt like a traveller who had traversed not only great distances, but had gone back in time to a land from the past.