Easy Uzbekistan: the Silk Road by high-speed train

Uzbekistan: the name conjures images of far-away mosques and blue-tiled domes, camels and caravanserai, mosaics and medressas. It’s true that Uzbekistan is the kind of place that many people don’t reach, but the country has chugged into the new millennium with an excellent high-speed train network that makes getting around here much easier than many travellers might think.

The country’s three major cities, and its most famous monuments, are all connected by bullet trains that make getting around fast and comfortable. History buffs, desert lovers, post-Soviet architecture seekers and anyone drawn by the mystique of the Silk Road will find Uzbekistan a welcoming and surprisingly easy place to travel.

Samarkand's illuminated Registan Square at duskSamarkand’s Registan Square at dusk © Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet

A complete itinerary requires one week, starting in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, before railing southwest across the desert to mystical Bukhara, tracking east to monument-laden Samarkand, and then rolling back to Tashkent. Here’s our easy whistle-stop tour of Uzbekistan by high-speed train.

High-speed Afrosiyob Talgo train arriving into Bukhara Railway Station from TashkentHigh-speed Afrosiyob Talgo train arriving into Bukhara Railway Station from Tashkent © Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet

Uzbekistan’s railway network: what to know

Uzbekistan’s high-speed train network – the Afrosiyob – connects its capital Tashkent with the major cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. Uzbekistan Railways utilises Talgo-brand trains – the same roomy carriages on which you’d zip around Spain. There are three classes of travel: economy, business and VIP, but even in economy, the double-seater, air-conditioned carriages are extremely comfortable and include a complimentary snack service of tea and biscuits, and wide windows through which to watch the dusty Uzbek landscape zip by.

Interior of Uzbekistan high-speed train in economy classInterior of economy class on an Uzbekistan Railways high-speed train © Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet

Tickets can (and should) be bought in advance through a travel agency or hotel, or purchased at the station. Your seat and coach number are printed on your ticket, which will be collected by a conductor when you board (so memorise your seat number!) and returned to you before your arrival station.

Tashkent

Uzbekistan’s tidy, gleaming capital city, Tashkent, nods to its Soviet past in monumental brutalist buildings, such as the stoic Hotel Uzbekistan, but manages to be far less austere than one might imagine a post-Soviet city to be. The desert climate here ensures blue skies most days, and the city employs a hearty crew of cleaners to keep the streets, gardens and parks spick and span (to the point that it’s not unlikely to observe a truly dedicated gardener trimming grass to an exacting length with a pair of scissors).

Friendly vegetable vendor in Tashkent's Chorsu BazaarFriendly vegetable vendor in Tashkent’s Chorsu Bazaar © Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet

Don’t miss the Barak Khan Medressa and other treasures at Khast Imom Square and go for a stroll through the city’s main shopping hub, Chorsu Bazaar, where you can pick up fruits and vegetables, local pickles and knickknacks, and see a staggering array of meats on sale from local butchers.

Train tips

Tashkent’s railway station is a grand, blue-windowed structure dating to the early 1980s. You’ll need photo ID to pass through the two security checkpoints to get into the grounds and then into the station. There are a few snack bars inside once you’re through. It is served by Tashkent metro station on the blue Uzbekistan Line.

Exterior of Tashkent Railway StationTangled up in blue: Tashkent Railway Station © Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet

True railway buffs will also want to pay a visit to the Railway Museum, an open-air yard with dozens of archaic Soviet locos to admire.

Bukhara

Often dubbed as Central Asia’s holiest city, Bukhara is a millennium old and is the best place to see the remains of the ancient Silk Road, unrestored. Bukhara is home to numerous monuments, including the Kalon Mosque, whose minaret (built in 1127) is famously the only structure Chinggis Khan spared in his rampages across the steppe. But the true joy of a visit to Bukhara is in wandering around the city’s labyrinthine old town – a maze of mud-walled, low-rise structures connected by winding dirt streets.

Bukhara's Kalon Mosque and minaret against a blue skySpared by Chinggis: Bukhara’s Kalon Mosque and its 12th-century minaret © Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet

Train tips

The high-speed line has reduced train travel between Tashkent and Bukhara from seven hours to just under three. The city’s train station is 10km south of the centre, and taxi touts ply the station’s car park when trains arrive. Bargain hard (around 4000 som should get you to town) or hop on Minibus 68 to Lyabi-Hauz.

Samarkand

For many, the name Samarkand is synonymous with the Silk Road, and indeed this ancient city fulfils most visitors’ dreams with its gleaming, blue-tiled domes and elegant Timurid facades covered in geometric patterns.

Ladies in bright clothing and head scarves walk through Shah-i-Zinda tiled mausoleumUzbek tourists visit Samarkand’s ornately tiled Shah-i-Zinda mausoleum © Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet

For centuries, Samarkand was literally and metaphorically the centre of the world: nomads, traders, soldiers and scholars passed through this crossroads city on their way along the Silk Road. Ideas and goods that shaped the world as we now know it – spices, fabrics, architectural styles, religious texts and fashions – passed through the Registan. This, Samarkand’s main square flanked by three stately medressas (Islamic schools), has become the icon of Central Asia.

Numerous mosques, medressas and mausoleums (including the tomb of Persian ruler Timur himself, the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum) are scattered around Samarkand, and its sparkling streets and busy bazaars are truly pleasant to wander through. Make sure you visit the Registan at sundown, when the blue desert light casts beautiful glints across the medressas, and once the sun is low enough, a glow of uplifting lights are switched on, illuminating the entire square.

Golden and blue tiles decorate the inside of the vast dome of the Gur-e-AmirGilded interior of the Gur-e-Amir, Persian ruler Timur’s final resting place © Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet

Train tips

Samarkand has been a centre of train travel since the first locomotives arrived here at the end of the 19th century, when the Russian empire made it a stop on the Trans-Caspian Railway. Both the trip from Bukhara to Samarkand as well as Samarkand back to Tashkent take around two hours. The first phase of a shiny tram system opened in Samarkand in April 2017, and future lines are set to connect the railway station with the tourist centre of the city in 2018. Until then, making the journey in a taxi should cost around 8000 som.

The curving walls of Khiva's remarkably well-preserved old townThe curving walls of Khiva’s remarkably well-preserved old town © Ozbalci / Getty Images

Khiva

The ancient walled city of Khiva, located in the far west of Uzbekistan, is one of the country’s Silk Road drawcards, but due to its remote location, it is less busy than other sights. Though Khiva is not yet served by the high-speed rail network, construction of a line extension will connect it to the rest of the country at speed in 2018.

Cup of tea and a plastic container of jam biscuits on a train tray tableFree snacks: tea and jam biscuits served on Uzbekistan’s bullet trains © Megan Eaves / Lonely Planet

Two-week traveller: choose your Central Asia adventure

Once the realm of Silk Road merchants and Great Game spies, the Heavenly Mountains and Black Sand deserts of the ‘Stans, as the five countries of Central Asia are affectionately known, have historically been the stuff of epic overland trips taking many months and much bureaucracy.

With the region’s flight connections burgeoning and red tape shrinking, it’s finally possible for the two-week traveller to experience Central Asia.

Bucket list view: sunset at Bukhara Kalon Minaret in Uzbekistan. Image by Stephen Lioy / Lonely PlanetBucket list view: sunset at Bukhara Kalon Minaret in Uzbekistan. Image by Stephen Lioy / Lonely Planet

Limited time means tough choices, though, so here’s how to know which two-week Central Asia adventure through this fascinating and unspoilt region fits you best.

Nomad life – Kyrgyzstan

Nomad life: overnight in a mountain yurt in Kyrgyzstan. Image by Stephen Lioy / Lonely PlanetNomad life: overnight in a mountain yurt in Kyrgyzstan. Image by Stephen Lioy / Lonely Planet

Stay a day or two in capital city Bishkek for a taste of modern Kyrgyzstan: open-air bazaars near American-style cafes, and young couples strolling together under statues of Lenin and local folk hero Manas. Then, head for the mountains to get back to Kyrgyzstan’s roots. This is the land of nomads, where yurt tents dot all but the remotest of valleys and the size of one’s herd is still a legitimate way to judge a person’s wealth. Spend your days on foot or horseback crossing jailoo (summer pasture) mountain valleys that double as grazing ground, and by night tuck into a big pot of boiled horse cooked by your hosts at a yurt homestay. These can be organised by one of many community-based tourism offices throughout the country – the most popular base is Karakol on the east edge of the Issyk-Köl lake. Independent travelers with a tent and a map can also strike out on their own to explore the variety of trekking routes around Kyrgyzstan. If you have extra time, you can grab a few days’ relaxation in one of the Soviet-era resorts on the south shore of Issyk-Köl or party with vacationing Russians and Kazakhs on the north shore.

Silk Road history – Uzbekistan

Stunning mosaics of the Shah-i-Zinda complex in Registan, Uzbekistan. Image by Stephen Lioy / Lonely PlanetStunning mosaics of the Shah-i-Zinda complex in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Image by Stephen Lioy / Lonely Planet

While branches of the Silk Road weaved throughout Central Asia, nowhere can compare to Uzbekistan for exploring this most famous period of the region’s history. The mausoleums of 14th-century conqueror Tamerlane’s capital Samarkand are the most popular (and well-photographed) for good reason: the imposing face of the Registan’s three medressa religious schools and the brilliantly shining mosaics of the Shah-i-Zinda tomb complex are themselves worth the trip to Uzbekistan. Don’t stop here, though. Further into the Kyzylkum desert, the smaller cities of Bukhara and Khiva are open-air museums in their own right and the ‘40 Fortresses’ lining the road beyond Khiva evoke every camel caravan fantasy you’ve ever entertained. If mounting an expedition is out of reach, you can always opt to stay in one of Bukhara’s restored caravansaray (courtyard inns) or medressa hotels for a modern boutique take on the Silk Road lifestyle – the wi-fi’s a lot better these days!

Roof of the World road trips – Tajikistan

Epic Central Asia road trip: traversing the Pamir Highway. Image by Stephen Lioy / Lonely PlanetEpic Central Asia road trip: traversing the Pamir Highway. Image by Stephen Lioy / Lonely Planet

Find a few friends, hire a car, and set off on one of the world’s greatest road trips: the Pamir Highway through Tajikistan. From the town of Khorog – capital of Tajikistan’s Gorno Badakhshan region in the Pamir Mountains – the Pamir Highway stretches 726km through a barren and barely populated but starkly beautiful landscape to the border with Kyrgyzstan and beyond to the city of Osh. On the way, remote Murghabmakes an excellent base for trekking and visiting holy hot springs or lingering for a day at the Karakul alpine lake just a few hours from the border – inexplicably home to the world’s highest regatta. If you still have time to spare, you can return via the Wakhan Valley, where the Yamchun Fortress had already been guarding this important trade route for 1500 years by the time Marco Polo dropped in. Alternately, if the Afghan border is calm, you can cross into no-man’s-land at Ishkashimfor an international weekend market that hosts traders from Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Gas craters and golden guardians – Turkmenistan

'Doorway to hell': Darvaza Gas Crater burning in remote Turkmenistan. Image by Stephen Lioy / Lonely Planet‘Doorway to hell’: Darvaza Gas Crater burning in remote Turkmenistan. Image by Stephen Lioy / Lonely Planet

The difficulty or cost of getting a visa is one of the biggest hindrances for would-be visitors to Turkmenistan, but those that make the effort will find a country full of rarely-visited attractions. The ‘Doorway to Hell’ Darvaza gas crater and the capital city of Ashgabat, with its many gold-plated monuments to former ruler Turkmenbashi, get most of the attention from the tourists that do visit the country. Push a little further, beyond the Silk Road ruins of Merv and Konye-Urgench, and hike the Kopet-Dag mountains on the border with Iran, or spot migratory birds and protected ungulates in the Kaplankyr Nature Reserve that abuts Uzbekistan.

Winter delights – Kazakhstan

Winter wonderland: skating and snow sports abound in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Image by Stephen Lioy / Lonely PlanetWinter wonderland: skating and snow sports abound in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Image by Stephen Lioy / Lonely Planet

If you’re looking at a winter visit to the region, Kazakhstan is easily the best choice for both infrastructure and activity options. In the mountains rising above cultural centre and former capital, Almaty, the Shymbulak ski resort’s 12km of pistes and the Medeu ice skating facility (once known as the best venue in the Soviet Union) are popular with both locals and visitors. If you just want punishingly cold, well, national capital Astana is closer to Siberia than to Almaty. If the -40°C temperatures on the street are too intimidating, head to the city-in-a-tent Khan Shatyr, a shopping mall with an artificial beach that boasts imported Maldivian sand. Where else can you experience a beach party in sub-Siberian winter? We wager, nowhere.

Central Asia travel pro-tips

Traditional Kyrgyz horse racing in Bishkek. Image by Stephen Lioy / Lonely PlanetTraditional Kyrgyz horse racing in Bishkek. Image by Stephen Lioy / Lonely Planet

 

Celebrating Nowruz the Central Asian way

Framed by the snowy peaks of the Tian Shan mountains on the southern horizon, two teams of horsemen gather at centre field in Bishkek’s Ak-Kula Hippodrome to compete in the championship match of Kyrgyzstan’s national sport, kok-boru.

In a scene that plays out with small variations across the major cities of Central Asia each March, celebrations for the traditional Nowruzholiday – Central Asia’s largest – begin early with horse games, performances and picnics and last late into the night with pop concerts and fireworks displays. Nowruz is typically celebrated on 20 or 21 March, though dates vary each year.

Traditional dancers perform in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan during Nowruz © Anadolu Agency / Getty ImagesTraditional dancers perform in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan during Nowruz © Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

While western celebration of the holiday is a relatively recent phenomenon (UNESCO listed it as ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ in 2009), Persian tradition holds Nowruz (literally “New Day” in Farsi; also Navrus in Uzbek, Nauryz in Kazakh, Novruz in Turkmen, Nooruzin Kyrgyz and Nauroz in Dari) to be a 15,000-year-old celebration of the end of winter and the start of a new year and new harvest cycle.

Modern celebrations in the region forego the traditional feasts of Iranian homes in favour of national sports, public spectacles and more than a bit of vodka to see the old year out and the new year in.

History of Nowruz in Central Asia

Originally a Zoroastrian harvest festival later subsumed into the Persian calendar, Nowruz was most likely introduced into Central Asia during the Achaemenid era (c. 550–330 BC). The ongoing popularity of the holiday across Central Asia is one of many indelible remnants of the empires that variously ruled this region the centuries. While the artefacts of the ‘Stans’ more recent Soviet legacy are often more immediately apparent to visitors – Lenin statues, the Pamir Highwayand monuments to the former reach of the Aral Sea – echoes of Central Asia’s Persian roots are sometimes less obvious.

Kok-boru is the traditional sport of Nowruz © Anadolu Agency / Getty ImagesKok-boru is the traditional sport of Nowruz © Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Disallowed as a religious observance during the Soviet era, Nowruz has re-emerged in force since 1991 as the cultures of the region have re-engaged with their ancient roots. As Central Asia looks towards spring each March, Nowruz marks the turning point at which the worst of winter has passed and the start of a new year means the return of warmth and life to the countryside.

Nowruz food and drink

Sumalak, a thick wheat-based beverage, is typically drunk during Nowruz © Stephen Lioy / Lonely PlanetSumalak, a thick wheat-based beverage, is typically drunk during Nowruz © Stephen Lioy / Lonely Planet

From capital cities to remote villages, the holiday is marked in much the same way throughout the ‘Stans. For many days before 20 March, the women of each household clean and cook and prepare for the new year. Sumalak (Sümölök; Сумолок in Kyrgyz), a wheat-based beverage, shows up on the streets this one day each year. The wheat is soaked in water for a week until it sprouts, and it has to be cooked for a full day with sugar, flour and oil. Dark, grainy, earthy, thick…it’s the kind of thing you want to drink exactly once a year.

A Nowruz dinner table is traditionally laid out with seven items, all beginning with the Arabic sound ‘sh’ – sharob (wine), shir (milk), shirinliklar (sweets), shakar (sugar), sharbat (sherbet), sham (a candle) and shona (a new bud). The candles are a throwback to pre-Islamic traditions and the new bud symbolises the renewal of life.

Nowruz sport: kok-boru

For locals and tourists alike, Nowruz is also often an excuse to get out and watch kok-boru. Known originally as buzkashi (a Persian phrase meaning ‘goat dragging’), the name of the game varies from country to country but the chief objective is the same: a team of horsemen carry a goat carcass to a large goal at the end of a playing field while preventing a competing team from doing the same. Though deeply traditional, some visitors understandably may find the sport unsettling or even gruesome.

Kok-boru and other equestrian sports are popular throughout the'Stans during Nowruz © Stephen Lioy / Lonely PlanetKok-boru and other equestrian sports are popular throughout the ‘Stans during Nowruz © Stephen Lioy / Lonely Planet

The rules of the game sound simple, but the crashing of twenty fierce riders who are attempting the already significant challenge of dragging a whole goat from ground to horseback to goal is an event meriting the furore of the large crowds that gather to watch. Add in large sums of cash and prizes like new cars, and it becomes a local focal point of the holiday season.

Nowruz customs

Nowruz is a day to spend with family, visit friends and neighbours, and maybe show off a bit; the kind of day to dress up in your finest clothes and your nicest hat and head out to socialise.

Family and food: two important components of Nowruz in Central Asia © VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty ImagesFamily and food: two important components of Nowruz in Central Asia © VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images

Whether sipping on sumolok with the neighbours, sharing meat skewers with friends or joining the stadium crowds to cheer on horsemen from across the country, in Central Asia Nowruz is a day to be out and about, celebrating spring’s warmth even if the last snows of winter still linger on the streets and hills.

With the horse games finished on the morning of 21 March, in village fields and capital city stadiums, the mostly-male kok-boru audiences trickle back into town centres to rejoin family celebrations. In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, as traffic is rerouted around the central square and boisterous midday dance troupes give way to early evening pop stars, yurt tents erected for Nowruz keep waitresses busy passing out cup after cup of tea.

Welcome to Uzbekistan

Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva never fail to impress visitors with their fabulous mosques, medressas and mausoleums, while its more eccentric attractions, such as the fast disappearing Aral Sea, the fortresses of desperately remote Karakalpakstan, its boom town capital Tashkent and the ecotourism opportunities of the Nuratau Mountains, mean that even the most diverse tastes can be catered for.

Despite being a harshly governed police state, Uzbekistan remains an extremely friendly country where hospitality remains an essential element of daily life and you’ll be made to feel genuinely welcome by the people you meet.