Uzbekistan’s magnificent cities: where Soviet style meets Islamic heritage

Uzbekistan is changing fast. Spanish-built, high-speed trains link the cities, 17 million SIM cards are now active (there were only 50,000 in 2005) and Tashkent’s trams are being replaced by bigger bus and metro networks. But it’s not all modernisation. Young, fashionable women and designers – such as Saida Amir, who graduated from London’s Central Saint Martins – are reviving the fashion scene, putting a new twist on fabulous ikat fabrics, once seen as something only their mothers would wear.

There are three places first-time visitors must visit. Samarkand has the architectural heavy-hitters (the necropolis Shah-i-Zinda,Tamerlane’s mausoleum Gūr-i Amīr, Registan square); Bukhara is best for atmosphere and shopping; and Khiva for its fantastic small museums.

Bukhara

People are keen to show outsiders Uzbek heritage, arts and crafts. In Tashkent I met the artist Gayrat Ibragimov, who is creating cutting-edge video art and graphic art that reflects Central Asia, and his father, Lekim, who painted the 66 metre-long canvas One Thousand Angels and One Painting, which has toured the world. In Bukhara’s synagogue a few words of Hebrew led the caretaker to show me what he claimed to be an 11th-century Torah.

Get up on Khiva’s 18th-century mud walls to see amazing sunset views. I recently climbed the steps and watched as the sky turned pink and swallows darted between the sand-coloured minarets. Khiva has a reputation for being an over-restored “city-museum”, but it would take a particularly cynical eye to not appreciate its sunsets and towering madrasas.

Sipping tea at traditional chaikhanas (teahouses), with their painted ceilings, bubbling Russian samovars and wooden tapchans (divans), is one of my favourite Uzbek experiences. The chaikhana doubles as an informal courthouse and newsstand, and while primarily for males, I’ve never been made to feel unwelcome. It’s more about atmosphere than menus – tea choices tend to be just black or green – but if you visit more touristy tea cafes, such as Silk Road Spices in Bukhara, you can drink saffron tea or ginger tea, and pair it with some tooth-shatteringly sweet halva.

Bukhara has the monopoly on places to stay if you like hotels with character. My latest find is the newly opened 10-room Kavsar Hotel (doubles from around £35, no website) owned by the Sherova family. The hotel has an excellent collection of antiques on display and a large, atmospheric courtyard to dine in. The homemade breakfast – cheeses, fresh bread, pancakes, fresh jam, seasonal fruit salad – is the best I’ve found in Uzbekistan.

It is worth taking a short flight to Nukus, in the far west of the country, to visit the Savitsky Museum. Attracting just a few thousand international visitors a year, it houses a 90,000-strong collection of world-class Russian avant-garde artworks, hidden away here in the 1950s from the USSR’s fanatical leaders. A new wing, due to open in September, will show 15% of the art collection, rather than just the 3% currently on display.

For authentic Samarkand-style plov (a layered, steaming pilaf of rice, onions, carrots and beef or lamb), go to the Osh Markazi, or “plov centre”, in Samarkand.It serves the best plov in the city, sprinkled with quail’s eggs and juicy sultanas, and everyone on the table eats from one big plate.

Article: Caroline Eden

Photo: Katja Kreder / Getty Images

Copyrights: (c) The Guardian

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