Bustling Bazaars, Ancient Cities, and the Silk Road: 10 Ways to Explore Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan, Samarkand, Shah-i-Zinda
Uzbekistan, Samarkand, Shah-i-ZindaTuul & Bruno Morandi / Getty Images

With the debut of high-speed trains providing connectivity to breathtaking natural wonders to a newly implemented e-visa system offering easy entrance into the country, Uzbekistan is quickly emerging as Central Asia‘s most coveted travel destination.

Years after its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev entered office in 2016 and listed tourism as one of his top priorities for growth, a pledge launching the country’s visitor rates from 92,000 in 1995 to more than 4.4 million in 2018.

Specializing in travel to Central Asia’s blossoming cultural destination is MIR Corporation, a travel company offering specialized tours to the region. Venturing off the beaten path, a MIR itinerary gets you on the backroads and byways of Uzbekistan, traveling far beyond the typical tourism path.

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“Our late-1980s presence in Central Asia began when the U.S.S.R. and communism still existed,” says Annie Lucas, vice president and co-owner of MIR Corporation. “Then, Uzbekistan was still under Soviet rule. A lack of infrastructure made road and train journeys rough, and knowledge of either Uzbek or Russian was imperative to get around. Now, it’s easier than ever to visit, with new international flights and luxury hotels—there’s even talk of Uzbeks being allowed to utilize Airbnb for an authentic homestay experience.”

Where weary travelers once stopped for rest and nourishment on the Silk Road, the Uzbek sense of hospitality is as alive today as it was centuries ago. From the country’s incredible monuments to its bustling bazaars, here are your not-to-miss experiences in Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan, Tashkent, Exterior of Madrasa Barak Khan
Uzbekistan, Tashkent, Exterior of Madrasa Barak Khan ClickAlps / Getty Images

1. See the Oldest Quran in the World in Tashkent

Though a devastating earthquake destroyed many of the city’s most impressive monuments in 1966, visit Uzbekistan’s vibrant capital of Tashkent to witness the amalgam of modern- and Soviet-era architecture. Pay homage to the city’s centuries-old past with a visit to Khast Imam Square—the spiritual heart of the city, where 160-foot high minarets frame a structure comprised of sandalwood columns from India and blue tiles from Iran—and the diminutive Muyi Mubarak Library, where the oldest Quran in the world is on display.

Second floor rooms above courtyard of Ulugbek Medressa, Registan
Second floor rooms above courtyard of Ulugbek Medressa, Registan Andrew Peacock / Getty Images

2. Rove the Silk Road Oasis of Samarkand

As one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia, Samarkand harbors centuries of mythical allure. Once a vital location on the Silk Road, the town offered connectivity for travelers between China and the Mediterranean. First settled in 6th-century BC, this oasis town enticed conquerors like Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane to its bustling streets, the latter regaled for transforming the city into a cultural epicenter known for ornate art and architecture. Explore this UNESCO World Heritage Site’s bevy of stunning monuments, from the opulent Bibi-Khanum Mosque to Registan Square, the ancient city’s central meeting point hugged by three majestic medieval madrassas, or ancient religious institutions.

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3. Spend a Night in a Nomadic Yurt Camp

Beyond the country’s atmospheric bazaars, opt for a night under the stars in a nomadic camp in the immense Kyzyl Kum, or Red Sand Desert. As one of the largest deserts on Earth, the Kyzyl Kum is cupped by two rivers—the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya—and contains a vast landscape comprised of rolling sand dunes, myriad oases, and takirs, shallow depressions of mesmerizing cracked clay soil. During a late-night campfire, discover what life was like centuries ago for travelers on the Silk Road while celebrating the traditional nomadic Uzbek way of life.

Uzbekistan mountain range
Uzbekistan mountain range Roman Valiev / Getty Images

4. Explore the Chimgan Mountains

Located two hours northeast of Tashkent within the Chaktal range of the western Tian-Shan, the slopes of the Chimgan Mountains in Ugam-Chatkal National Park are perfect for outdoor pursuits. In summer, Chimgan’s fragrant evergreen forest is perfect for myriad adventures, from climbing and hiking to taking dips in the area’s plentiful rivers and waterfalls. By winter, the area becomes the most popular ski resort in Uzbekistan, where you can expect to ski and snowboard alongside the countries best winter sports enthusiasts.

Traditional Uzbekistan Plov
Arx0nt / Getty Images

5. Prepare an Authentic Uzbek Meal

As Uzbekistan’s national dish, no trip to the country is complete without trying plov, a hearty rice plate made savory with slow-cooked meat, vegetables, and regional spices like cumin, saffron, and coriander. Often prepared during celebratory events like festivals and weddings, every family has their own recipe that’s been passed down generationally. Up your knowledge of the country’s native cuisine by cooking with locals, where you can learn how the dish is simmered for hours in a traditional cast-iron kazan, or pot, over an open flame.

extensive collection of gulag-era art in a museum in Nukus, Uzbekistan in October 2001
Chip HIRES / Contributor / Getty Images

6. Visit the Desert of Forbidden Art

Set in the desert near Uzbekistan’s shrinking Aral Sea—once the fourth largest lake in the world—the Nukus Museum of Art contains around 90,000 artworks, including Karakalpak folk art and thousands of banned avant-garde Russian paintings from the early 1900s, the second-largest of its kind after the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. Considered one of the greatest museums in the world, this remote institution was launched by Igor Savitsky in 1966, who salvaged these important cultural pieces from collections in Moscow to protect them from the watchful eyes of the KGB.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Bukhara, Uzbekistan VW Pics / Contributor / Getty Images

7. Stroll the Bazaars in Old Town Bukhara

As one of the most important cultural trade centers on the Silk Road, the ancient city of Bukhara was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its over 140 architectural monuments, from the mulberry-shadded Lyabi-Hauz Plaza to the Kalon Mosque and Minaret, the second largest mosque in Central Asia. During an exploration of the city, be sure to browse Bukhara’s markets and bazaars, where myriad stalls hawk traditional wares, from ikat silks to embroidered hats.

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8. Tour a Private Ceramics Studio in Rishtan

Famous for ceramics produced by the Fergana Valley’s most skilled craftsmen, visit the ancient town of Rishtan to see how 800 years of artistry is preserved through pottery during a private studio tour. With ancestral traditions passed down from father to son for countless generations, watch as artists combine the Alai Range’s red clay and pigments with minerals and wild mountain grasses to form the base for elaborate designs, each lathered in geometric patterns in a range of hues, from cobalt to teal.

Loom of the Silk Factory in the City of Margillan
Loom of the Silk Factory in the City of Margilan Jean-Michel COUREAU / Contributor / Getty Images

9. Discover How Silk Is Made in Margilan

As one of the world’s foremost producers of silk, visit the Fergana Valley—where Central Asia’s silk production first began in the 9th century—to discover Uzbekistan’s epicenter of production. With a mild climate, the most fertile part of the country offers the ideal condition for mulberry trees to flourish, which supplies ample food for silkworms. When you travel just outside of Fergana to the town of Margilan, visit the workshop of a renowned silk master to witness ancient silk-making techniques—the fabric is prepared from silkworm cocoons and woven into vibrant traditional patterns.

10. Take a Camel Odyssey in the Desert

Just as ancient traders once traveled on the Silk Road, no journey to Uzbekistan is complete without riding through the desert on a camel. Once the only mode of travel to securely move goods from East to West—from bundles of silks and hordes of jewels to fragrant spices and exotic teas—camels harbor the proper endurance to handle the likes of the arid Kyzyl Kum Desert. After learning the ropes of this ancient sport, set off on camelback for the oasis of Aidarkul Lake.

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