We drove on northwards towards the Nurata region, through cotton fields, roadside watermelon sellers, mountains and goat herds. Clouds cast shadows on the vast grasslands. En route we climbed a rocky outcrop where petroglyphs carved by Alexander the Great’s soldiers are still clearly visible.I stopped off at Alisher Navoiy station, named after the 15th century poet. On the walls are paintings depicting scenes from his famous stories, set beneath gorgeous Alhambra-style vaulted ceilings and columns. Kosmonaut station is space-themed: there are oil paintings of the Soyuz space capsule, as well as Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, the first man and woman in space. At Gofur Gulom station it’s all giant spotlights and art nouveau Egyptian-style columns, coloured in malachite. Intriguingly, each station displays how much time has passed since the last train departed – perhaps reflecting Uzbeks’ strong relationship to history. The next day a modern, high-speed train sped us to the town of Bukhara, three hours west of Tashkent. During its golden age in the ninth and 10th centuries Bukhara hosted some of the Islamic world’s greatest intellectuals, scientists and artisans. Today it is a centre for silk carpet weaving (rugs sell for up to $50,000), and in the old town you will see many older folk with traditional gold teeth and women dressed in brightly embroidered satin dresses. Uzbekistan’s history as a cultural crossroads is reflected in many eyes and faces: a gorgeous mix of Chinese, Mongolian, Persian and Russian. In Bukhara you’re spoilt for choice with ancient sights. The highlight is the beautiful Po-i-Kalyan religious complex with its blue-domed mosque and skyscraping minaret, which was built in 1127. It used to be a staggering 45 metres high, making it the tallest free-standing tower in the medieval world. Genghis Khan was so impressed that he chose not to demolish it. Instead, criminals were executed by being thrown from its summit. Another highlight is the Samanid Mausoleum, resting place of Persian ruler Ismail Samani. The ninth century construction is a highly regarded example of Persian Central Asian architecture. The angled brickwork gives a unique texture to its exterior. We drove on northwards towards the Nurata region, through cotton fields, roadside watermelon sellers, mountains and goat herds. Clouds cast shadows on the vast grasslands. En route we climbed a rocky outcrop where petroglyphs carved by Alexander the Great’s soldiers are still clearly visible.
It seemed a marvel, as I gawped at the exquisite gold leaf smothering the interiors from floor to ceiling, that this place wasn’t overrun with visitors.The Nurata Yurt Camp lies in the desert near Lake Aidar. Here, the landscape has a peaceful New Mexican feel to it, full of undulating sand dunes and scrub in which desert monitor lizards lurk. Guests sleep in traditional yurts beneath thick blankets. And fear not – there are fixed toilets and showers too. After sunset a guitarist sang folk songs around a fire as we gazed at the stars. The next morning our bus rolled eastwards to Samarkand. We had saved the best until last. This city of myth and legend has been inhabited since sixth century BC. By 1370 it was the centre of the largest empire the world had seen, with links from Delhi to Damascus and a population that grew to be even bigger than it is today. Marco Polo once paid a visit. The architecture here is breathtaking. It includes Shah-i-Zinda, the necropolis of the Living King, and Registan Square, a former public gathering place and Uzbekistan’s undisputed masterpiece. Its three madrassas are covered in blue mosaic tiles and flanked by minarets. It seemed a marvel, as I gawped at the exquisite gold leaf smothering the interiors from floor to ceiling, that this place wasn’t overrun with visitors. Enjoy it while it lasts.