For most of us any country that ends in 'stan' has a built in mystery about it. Places like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, are enticing, inspiring or just plain scary depending on your point of view. The destination may be inspiring my fellow travellers at first glance are not. A couple of grey perms, a neatly pressed safari suit and two scholarly types greet me sedately. First impressions can be deceptive.
It turns out that perms One and Two once hit the hippy trail through Afghanistan, Safari Suit was hijacked on the Khyber Pass and one of the professor-types seems to have been what can only be described as 'an agent of the US government' (the letters C, I & A were never mentioned).
Those who have a burning desire to visit Uzbekistan in a semblance of style (as much as the destination allows - more of that later) are already well-travelled, well-heeled and well informed.
The rest of us may be a little hazier on the details. Not you? So where exactly is Uzbekistan- OK, OK but I said
exactly. Left of Turkmenistan? Hang a right at Kyrgyzstan? Go on, admit it - world traveller that you are - you're not entirely sure are you?
Central Asia is one of those regions many of us have half-baked, hazy ideas about: Maybe because so much of it was smothered by the Soviet Union for so long and country borders have been blurred over the centuries.
Yet within the confines of what is now Uzbekistan lie the fabled Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Khiva, some of the world's most stunning Muslim mosaics and, for those who prefer a little shopping with their culture, the best quality Bukhara carpets you can buy at a fraction of the cost you'd pay anywhere else.
Ah, now I've got your attention.
First stop on my itinerary is Khiva, a walled city that sits fortress-like in the middle of an unforgiving desert. Once part of the overland trade route between China and the West, along which medieval Europe imported its tea, spices, jade, paper, porcelain and, of course, silk, Khiva and Bukhara were city states run by despotic emirs.
Their wealth and power must have dazzled the drivers of the camel trains that undertook such a long, dusty, death-defying journey to reach them.
I am pretty dazzled, too.
The city is preserved like a living museum and its treasures are extraordinary. Khiva's mud walls glow bronze in the early morning light as I set out to explore. If you ask me what my overriding memory of Uzbekistan's ancient cities is, it would be of that golden bronze - the city walls and the desert at sunset - and blue, everywhere shades of blue.
Azure, turquoise, midnight, lapis lazuli are the colours of the mosaics that adorn the mosques and minarets, towers and giant entrance ways. My first sight of these stunning mosaics is on the tile-covered Kafta-minor tower in Khiva, which shines like a sapphire in the sun. Unfinished but still impressive, the tower is the result of a competition between rival rulers to build the most impressive monuments. By the end of the day my head is full of tales of powerful khans (presiding over all from the Piurulla Palace), scheming grand viziers, brutal punishments and the secrets of the harem (in Tash-Khauli Palace).
Eight hours in a bumpy bus across the Kyzylkum Desert from Khiva is Bukhara. Set on a sacred hill, its name comes from the Sanskrit word 'vihara', which means 'monastery', and there are more than 350 mosques and 100 madrassas (religious colleges) here.
My head is full of tales of powerful khans... scheming grand viziers brutal punishments and the SECRETS of the HAREM.
However, secular life has invaded the sacred. Inside the mosaic splendour of Abdul-Aziz Khan Madrassah and the Kalyan Mosque, indeed everywhere we go, are souvenir sellers hawking embroidered clothes, beaded hats, Aladdin slippers, jewellery and exquisite hand-painted miniatures like something out of 'The Arabian Nights'.
And, of course, carpets. Bukhara is the home of the famous carpet weavers and their handiwork hangs, beautiful and blood-red, from almost every wall and window.
I've been told to wear baggy clothes and a headscarf, but it isn't necessary. Only the older generation keep up such traditions. The young women wear tight 80s jeans and tiny skirts. Given the years the country was under the rule of the Soviet Union, it is no surprise that the religious culture is relatively liberal. So I find myself swigging vodka with the locals in an outdoor beer garden in Samarkand while people dance riotously in a distinctly Cossack style.
The Uzbeks haven't seen enough tourists to be sick of us yet. As I wander around a warren of backstreets I come upon one of those local markets that spring up in every town just after dawn. I am greeted with 24-carat smiles - literally. Many Uzbeks have perfect sets of gold teeth (and the men all have luxuriant moustaches). One old lady, as wrinkled as a raisin, smiles at me just as the sun rises past the building opposite and the flash from her teeth is as daunting as Jaws, the James Bond villain.
Uzbek hospitality seems boundless. In Samarkand, in the shadow of the memorial to Imam Ismail al-Bukhari (whose writings are almost as valued as the Koran), a family feasts. They beckon me over to sit in the cool, loading me up with hunks of cooked meats and unleavened bread which the women stuff maternally into my camera bag. I carry half a sheep around until I find a bin at the gates of the ancient royal city and discreetly empty out what remains in my case. Just in time. Minutes later, around the corner come the feasting family. Delighted at meeting again, they envelope me in hugs and the grandmother pats my stomach approvingly, obviously convinced I am looking less skinny after a decent meal.
Samarkand is probably the most mythical of the Silk Road cities - it's as old as Rome or Babylon. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and, above all, Tamerlane have all cast a shadow here. Registan Square - as wide as a football field and flanked by the towering grandeur of the Ulugbek, Shir Dor and Tillya Kari madrassahs - is breathtaking in scale. Sitting in the vast, empty square, I marvel yet again at the mosaics, at the domes and at the vision that had built them. I've finally made the golden journey to Samarkand. There is nothing more to say. "Buy a carpet?" a hopeful voice asks behind me.
Make that, almost nothing.
Accommodation in Uzbekistan is not what
The Luxury Travel Bible would normally recommend. Even 'five star' hotels tend to be of the monolithic, ex-Soviet variety where the scent of boiled cabbage lingers on. The 233-room
InterContinental Tashkent does have a standard of classic luxury and the shiny blue-glass
Radisson SAS, Tashkent is also promising but beyond the capital things get trickier. For character take a look at the 3-star (please note 3-star is generous)
Amelia Boutique Hotel, Bukhara. The building was once the old house of a merchant Jew rebuilt and redecorated in a semblance of style. The ten rooms are each is decorated in a different style for example, the Scheherazade Room, the Silk room etc.
Words & photos: Hilary Doling 25/3/10