Rich in history and home to some of the world’s most kaleidoscopic and intricate Islamic architecture, Uzbekistan is finally opening up to tourism.
At the heart of the old Silk Road, the landlocked, ex-Soviet country has the largest population among the Central Asian “stans.” It is slowly undergoing reforms following the death of authoritarian leader Islam Karimov in 2016.
The UNESCO-protected second city of Samarkand is at the heart of the heritage trail, which has recently been linked up by express rail.
Centred in between China and the west, Turco-Mongol conqueror Amir Timir made it his capital in the 15th century.
His final resting place is the intricate, golden Gur Emir Mausoleum, which contains his tomb – formed from the world’s largest piece of jade.
To the north-east of the city lies the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis.
The ensemble of ritual buildings was built between the 9th and 14th centuries, and the 19th century.
It features some of the most detailed tilework in the Muslim world, and is thought to be the resting place of the prophet Muhammad’s cousin Kusam ibn Abbas.
Despite controversial resoration efforts in 2005, it remains an important place of pilgrimage.
The centrepiece of ancient Samarkand is the Registan, meaning “sandy place.”
Three Islamic schools face eachother in a public square, which was once a commercial centre.
The three buildings are among the world’s oldest madressas.
Completed in 1660, gold leaf decoration drips from the walls of the Tilla-Kari Madrasa.
A more recent addition to the medieval capital’s treasures is the tomb of the Islam Karimov, which opened earlier this year.
The complex includes the Hazrati Khizr mosque, which was also restored.
Nearby, the impressive 14th-century Bibi Khanym Mausoleum is home to five tombs, including those of the wife and nieces of Amir Temur.
However, as with many of the country’s historical sites, restoration efforts have been criticised as being crude and hastily completed.
In the southwest lies the desert town of Khiva, bordering Turkmenistan. It can be reached by sleeper train, or by high-speed rail.
Ichon-Qala – the tiny, inner walled city – resembles a “toy town,” in that it is so well preserved. It contains over 50 historical sites and 250 old houses.
Dotted with minarets, mosques, madrassas and mausoleums, Khiva is now a sleepy tourist town, but it has a brutal past.
For centuries, it was notorious as a slave trading post, though its history can be traced to the biblical era.
The splendid 19th-century Tosh-Hovli Palace was believed to have more than nine courtyards leading to 150 rooms.
Even more elaborate is the splendid Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum, dedicated to the poet and philosopher.
At the main gates, the 12th-century Kuhna Ark contained the city’s ruler’s barracks, mosque, prison, stables, mint and harem.
It was expanded in the 17th century and features stunning designs, such as colourful majolica tiles. It is nowadays home to a museum.
At the centre of the former khanate is the 10th-century Dijum Mosque, with its interior hall supported by 215 wooden pillars.
But the holiest city in the region is Bukhara. Host to 140 architectural treasures, it remains a historical hub for theology, trade and culture.
Some of Uzbekistan’s most colourful and ornate architecture can be seen at the Ulugbek Madrasa.
With a history dating back to the 6th century BC, Bukhara has had many names over the millennia. And between 1920 and 1925, it briefly enjoyed statehood as the Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic.
The huge Ark of Bukhara served as a royal fortress and residence from around the 5th century, and was effectively a town-within-a-town.
Walls of up to 20 metres encircle the citadel, where emirs, military leaders and their servants lived.
No direct flights exist between Hong Kong and Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent – but it can be reached via Seoul, South Korea on Air Astana or Korean Air. Most visitors will require a visa, obtainable online. Peak season includes April to June, and September.
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