I checked out of the Art Hotel early the next day after a climb up Sulamain Too, the local mountain serving as the country’s only World Heritage Site located entirely in Kyrgyzstan. Atop is an ancient mosque and a popular pilgrimage destination to which thousands of faithful Muslims travel each year.
I pulled up the Yandex app on my phone and requested a car to take me to the border. The guy who picked me up was full of laughter and talked non-stop until we reached our destination 20 minutes away. I didn’t have a clue what he was saying, but I thoroughly enjoyed the chat.
Uzbekistan by Train Along the Silk Road from the Fergana Valley to the Aral Sea
There was a long line of money exchange shops at the border, so I traded in all the Kyrgyzstani som I had in my pocket for a fist full of Uzbekistani som. I then walked the long line to the Kyrgyzstani exit control before being directed to the Uzbekistan border post. Uzbekistan is the only country in the region to require a visa for U.S. citizens. Fortunately, a few months earlier, I had gone to the embassy of Uzbekistan on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington D.C., where a bright young embassy official wrote down the web address of their e-visa service. I applied online, paid the $20, and received my visa a few days later—which I duly printed out and carried with me.
“I see no record of your visa in our system,” said the official in uniform behind a large bullet-proof glass window. I asked him to look again, which he did, before calling a supervisor. I think they were not used to having foreigners try to cross at remote border posts, or perhaps their network was down, and they didn’t want to admit it. In any case, it took about half an hour to process my entry while a line of frustrated and older women complained bitterly in the queue behind me.
Once through, I walked out into the usual border herd of taxicabs. Yandex seemed not to work, and I was unfamiliar with the local currency and did not know how much to pay. I needed to get to the nearest train station in Fergana. I stopped for a cup of tea (for which I was not charged) and began the negotiations. I finally settled on 120,000 som. I thought I was getting a good deal until I was brought around the corner to a waiting car, in which two women sat in the back, one dressed conservatively and one in western clothes. The guy who brought me there quickly disappeared.
“Where did he go?” I asked, curious, speaking through the Google Translator app on my phone.
“He is going to look for one more passenger,” they replied. I then realized I had paid for a seat in a shared taxi car, a mini-marshrutka.
Still curious, I asked them: “How much did you each pay for your seats?”
“100,000 som (about $8.50), and you?” I had to admit I paid 120,000, but since I was sitting in the front seat, perhaps that was not so bad.
After a few minutes of sitting there, I came up with an idea and asked the ladies what they thought of it. “What if I offered him another 100,000 to leave now? Then we could leave immediately, and you would have more space back there.”
“Offer him 80,000,” said the one with the headscarf. That would lower the average to 100,000 and all would be fair. The driver accepted, and we set off down the road, a two-hour journey through non-stop urban suburbia.
The Ferghana Valley sits historically in the center of the main Silk Road route between Kashgar and Samarkand. Favorable conditions for agriculture have made the region the most densely populated part of Central Asia with 11 million people, many of them relatively conservative Muslims. I had read about the Silk Road for much of my life and I was finally there.
We reached the city of Fergana, and I bid farewell to my two travel companions. I had only one afternoon and evening in the city, so I immediately set off on foot to explore. I was surprised to see a bustling carnival with a functioning Ferris wheel and numerous rides for kids. The biggest attraction was a field of ping-pong tables.
The first thing one notices when entering Uzbekistan is that it’s a crossroad of cultures, an overlap of east and west. This has created a diverse cultural heritage and vibrant history, reflected in its spectacular architecture, delicious and diverse cuisine, and in the beautiful faces of its friendly people. Everyone from Genghis Khan and Amir Timur to Alexander the Great and Marco Polo crossed these lands. And now I was there.
Fergana to Tashkent
There are two types of trains that can take you across Uzbekistan: the Afrosiyob and the Sharq. The former is the fastest, allowing you to quickly and comfortably travel between Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara at speeds up to 210 kilometers/hour. All carriages are air-conditioned and non-smoking, with comfortable seats, tables, and many other facilities. The Sharq, by contrast, runs at about half the speed at half the cost and makes many more stops.
The trains are in high demand by locals, so it is essential to book tickets as far in advance as possible. I could never get a ticket for the fancy train and so always rode on the Sharq, which was comfortable enough and provided many opportunities to meet interesting Uzbek travel companions.
Rumbling across the Fergana Valley was an interesting experience. It was easy to see why so many people had moved here. Once we rolled out of the concrete landscape, the vast farms and plantations opened up, stretching to the horizon—mostly cotton and wheat but some fruit orchards as well.
After passing through Kokan, the train climbs slowly up into the mountains through a narrow pass that separates Uzbekistan from Tajikistan on one side and Kyrgyzstan on the other. The Kamchik Pass, at an altitude of 2,268 meters (7,440 feet), is the only land route for road transport between the Tashkent region and the Fergana Valley. The landscape is rugged and foreboding, with few trees or human habitation.
After passing Kamchik, we descended rapidly toward Tashkent, passing the enormous Angren open-pit coal mine that powers much of the country’s electric grid. The suburbs started immediately afterward and before long, we were at the train station in the country’s capital. I had made reservations at the Hilton Hampton Inn because of its location close to the UN building where I had agreed to work for a week.
After checking in, I set off in search of a laundromat. They were plentiful in Almaty, and I saw several in Bishkek. In Tashkent, however, there is no such thing. I found a few places that would wash individual pieces of clothing and charge me for each, similar to what they offered at the hotel. This was much too expensive for my budget, so I bought a box of soap, threw my clothes in the shower, put on some good music, and danced up some suds.
For a city with 2.5 million people, Tashkent is surprisingly livable. It is organized as a grid of straight, wide streets and avenues punctuated with green parks, squares, gardens, and fountains. The city presents a diverse tapestry of ancient and modern architecture, combining medieval buildings that look like they’re from the pages of One Thousand and One Nights with elegant European architecture. There are ubiquitous “blocks” of Soviet-era buildings interspersed with sparkling high-rise commercial buildings made of glass and concrete.
For a week, I developed a routine of walking into the office by a different route each day, checking out tea houses, city parks, and shops along the way. On one of these days, in the evening, I walked past the architectural wonder of the Palace of International Forums and noticed a stream of well-dressed Uzbeks filing into the front door. I first saw the building during my laundromat walkabout and wondered what it was. I figured it was a museum or some government building. Now was my chance to find out.
I walked around to the front of the building and noticed some security guards checking tickets. Almost immediately, a scalper came up and spoke to me in Russian, offering me a ticket for 5,000 rubles. When he discovered I spoke English, that quickly changed to one hundred U.S. dollars. “I have $20 Canadian,” I counter-offered, showing him the bill. “And it has a picture of Queen Elizabeth on it. As she recently passed away, it will probably be worth a lot more someday.”
He accepted, and I was soon walking toward the enormous façade of the Palace of International Forums, not knowing what to expect when I walked inside. It looked like a cross between the Lincoln Memorial, the Kennedy Center, and the Paris Opera House.
Inside was a spectacular lobby, through which I passed into a large auditorium with nearly 2,000 seats. One of the ushers took me to my seat—front and center in the third row. I suddenly felt like I should have offered the scalper a bit more for my ticket.
The concert I had serendipitously stumbled into was with the Russian musical composer and master pianist Denis Matsuev. I had no idea who he was and so Googled him from my seat, coming across a February 11, 2022, report in the New York Classical Review that started with “the crowd at Carnegie Hall gave pianist Denis Matsuev an excited, vocal ovation when he stepped onto the stage Wednesday night.” Two weeks after that concert his country invaded Ukraine.
Matsuev performed with the Uzbekistan national orchestra, with a string ensemble, percussion, a harp, and a lot of brass. Deciding to push politics aside for the arts for the evening, I was quickly swept up in a crosscurrent of melodies that included everything from Bach and Beethoven to Rachmaninoff and Gershwin.
I had a fantastic week in Tashkent, but I was ready to move on by Friday—excited to explore more of this amazing country. So at 9 PM I was back on the Sharq, heading southwest to Samarkand.
Samarkand and Bukhara
Samarkand and Bukhara are two of Uzbekistan’s most famous destinations. While Samarkand has the grand Registan, Bukhara is home to some of the country’s most intricate and important ancient buildings. Samarkand, located in a large oasis in the valley of the Zerafshan River, is considered the crossroads of world cultures with a history of over two and a half millennia. Its numerous ancient structures stand as monuments to bygone glory.
Marco Polo, who recorded his journey along the Silk Road in the thirteenth century, described Samarkand as “a very large and splendid city.” Alexander the Great, who conquered it a thousand years earlier in 329 B.C. reportedly exclaimed, “Everything I have heard about the beauty of Samarkand is true except it is even more beautiful than I could have imagined.”
I wholeheartedly agree with both Marco and Alexander and can attest that even after a few days, the sheer magnificence of the ancient architecture left me breathless and in complete awe.
I stayed at the Kamila Boutique Hotel just a few steps away from Registan Square, the age-old intersection of the Silk Road trade routes where all of the city’s most important sites are located. The hotel has a great rooftop terrace that overlooks the square and at night you can see the architectural wonder shimming in the lights cast upon it. Each night for an hour, a sound and light show accompanies a narration of the city’s history. It is worth seeing from both inside the square at a price, and also from the roof of the hotel.
I stayed in Samarkand for three nights wandering the streets and alleys of the ancient city. I could easily have stayed a few months, but on the fourth day, I jumped back on a passing Sharq and choo-chooed my way further west to Bukhara.
Bukhara, at more than 2,000 years old, is the most complete example of a medieval city in Central Asia with an urban fabric that, according to UNESCO, has remained largely intact and unchanged. While the ancient city and sites in Samarkand are centered away from the bustling metropolis of Uzbekistan’s second-largest city, the entire town of Bukhara is a historical site, with more than 140 architectural monuments from the Middle Ages.
One of the holiest places of Islam, the venerable and captivating city of Bukhara was and is home to a diminishing population of Jews. Once home to more than 23,000, only around 200 remain. Today there are more than 50,000 Bukharian Jews in New York and more than 100,000 in Israel. The ones still in Bukhara, however, have been there much longer than the Muslims. They can trace their ancestry back to the conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus, the King of Persia, in 539 B.C., and further back from there to the Israelites whom the Assyrians exiled in eighth century B.C.
One of the most incredible places to explore is the Ark of Bukhara, a massive fortress built and occupied around the fifth century A.D. The site today offers a glimpse into the city’s history, with several museums covering everything from ancient coinage to kingly rituals. Only a small portion is open to the public, the rest having been destroyed by the Russian Red Army in about 1912. The destroyed part has yet to be fully excavated and is off-limits—unless you pay a guy 50,000 som (about $5), which I did. He’ll open up a gate and let you wander around that section on your own. It’s well worth it and could very well be the highlight of your trip. I didn’t find any gold coins or buried lanterns, but I was able to stretch my imagination back a few centuries wandering among the crumbling walls and piles of rubble.
My time in Bukhara was relatively short, and by 3 AM, I was back on the Sharq, heading further west towards Nukus and the Republic of Karakalpakstan. I had reserved a cabin but had to share it with another person as the only ones available were for two. I climbed into my appointed car and immediately heard an incredibly loud snore coming from the other end of the corridor. It sounded like a combination between a chainsaw and a Harley Davidson. I silently prayed it was not coming from my room, but unfortunately, it was. Needless to say, I did not get any sleep that night.
Karakalpakstan, the Aral Sea, and Savitsky
The Republic of Karakalpakstan is a sovereign state in name only, but it does exercise a high degree of autonomous self-determination. Although not a member of the United Nations, it does in many ways qualify—at least in my book—as visiting another country. Several months before my visit, mass protests erupted in response to a proposed change to Uzbekistan’s constitution that would have revoked the “republic’s” self-determination. The authorities backed off.
One of the highlights of any visit to Karakalpakstan is the Nukus Museum of Art, home to the world’s second-largest collection of Russian avant-garde artworks. The story behind this place and the art collection itself make it worth the long journey to the remote desert city.
Igor Savitsky, a Ukrainian-born painter, archeologist, and collector, chose the western desert region of Karakalpakstan as an unlikely hiding spot from Soviet censorship for his collection of 90,000 pieces of artwork and artifacts. He single-handedly founded this museum with vast amounts of Soviet-era art he had collected from across the former USSR, saving it from being destroyed by the communist government. This period saw the blooming of the Russian Avant-Garde along with a myriad of other experimental movements such as Constructivism, Cubism, and Futurism—movements born out of thriving cultural exchanges between Paris and Moscow. I spent the better part of the day exploring the two floors packed with art—and I have rarely spent more than two hours in any museum.
From Nukus, I traveled further west by car to the remote community of Muynak, which once sat on the shores of the Aral Sea. The Aral Sea is often associated with disaster, an ecological catastrophe of biblical proportions, caused by mistakes in the 1950s when man in his wisdom (and yes, these were men making the decisions) diverted the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to grow cotton. Experts now say that up to 75 percent of the water diverted was lost to evaporation or faulty irrigation. In other words, if the planning were better planned, the planners could have had their fishcake and eaten it too. But, alas, the cotton fields bloomed, and the Aral Sea (and the once-prosperous fishing communities that dotted its coastline) died.
I was struck by the emptiness of the vast stretch of barren landscape, with old ships rusting away at the bottom of a sea one can only imagine it to be. After visiting the local museum and the Aral Sea Memorial with its glimpses of gloom, I was nearly overcome with depression.
Fortunately, I discovered good news by visiting a local economic development initiative advancing sustainable food security and economic self-sufficiency. The program is being run by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In the course of a day, I visited with women who run their own businesses, a young man setting up greenhouses with plans to bring the fish back with fish farms, and a classroom full of young girls learning computer science. Read this article to learn more about the program.
The Aral Sea was the westernmost point of my journey and marked the end of my odyssey, after all of the planes, trains, horses, and automobiles that got me here. From there I drove back to Nukus, caught a flight to Tashkent, and then a few more flights to Cambodia for my first return to Angkor Wat in 25 years. But that’s another story.
This is the final installment of Adam’s Central Asian Odyssey.