Barely five feet tall, slender and softly spoken, 62-year-old Rimma Gazalieva may be small of stature, but she’s a giant in the world of Uzbek artistry.
The shelves of her cosy Tashkent studio are piled high with an eclectic array of porcelain plates, tea sets and bowls, all hand-painted by the artist, who has practised her craft for 35 years.
As well as taking private commissions, Gazalieva runs ceramic painting masterclasses, where amateurs like me can try their hand at the traditional technique (around £15; rimmagazalieva.com), plus she’s got a social media presence that would put most millennials to shame, with more than 5,600 followers on Instagram.
Honouring history but embracing the modern world; that’s how you could describe Uzbekistan as a whole, in fact.
The central Asian country was at the heart of the Great Silk Road, a network of trade routes that criss-crossed from China to the Roman Empire used from around 130 BC until the end of the mid-1400s.
Modern history is equally influential here; for most of the past 200 years, Uzbekistan was part of the Russian Empire and then Soviet Union, finally gaining independence in 1991.
The government has recently made it easier for many tourists – including Brits – to obtain a visa (there’s now a simple online system) and has seen a 40% uptick in international holidaymakers as a result.
One recent high-profile visitor was Joanna Lumley, who passed through as part of her Silk Road Adventure TV series, which aired on ITV in September, and now I’m following in the beloved presenter’s footsteps.
So, what should a first-timer do in Uzbekistan? As one of only two double landlocked countries in the world (the other is Liechtenstein, to save you Googling), clearly beaches are out of the question, but if arts and architecture float your boat, there’s a lot to admire.
Taking in three key locations, here’s my advice on how to spend your inaugural expedition…
In the leafy capital Tashkent, the Metro isn’t just a method of transport, it’s a must-see tourist destination. Why? Because each station in the underground system, opened in 1977, is elaborately decorated to represent a different part of the country, and a ban on taking photos of the network (because of the military sensitivity of its secondary use as a nuclear bomb shelter) has just been lifted, so you can get snap happy.
Some of the most impressive stations are royal blue-hued Kosmonavtlar, featuring portraits dedicated to famous cosmonauts; Pakhtakor, thanks to its technicolour tiling; and Alisher Navoi, with its intricate multi-domed ceiling.
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On right: Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly to space. On left: Katie Wright, the first @PA journalist to document the Tashkent underground, after a 41-year ban on photographing the subway stations was lifted two months ago. Each station is beautifully decorated to represent a different part of the country. No disrespect to TFL or anything, but the London Underground really pales in comparison.
Back at street level, make a beeline for bustling Chorsu Bazaar in the centre of the city and grab a large loaf of ‘non’. You’ll find this fluffy flatbread at every meal in Uzbekistan, but at the market, you can taste it fresh from the scalding tandoor ovens in which its baked.
Tashkent has its fair share of mosques and madrasahs (religious schools), too – notably the Khast Imam complex, less than 10 minutes in a taxi from Chorsu – but, truth be told, they pale in comparison to what you can find beyond the urban sprawl, so a day or two is all you need in the capital.
A two-hour high-speed train journey from Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s second largest city was once a booming trading stop on the Great Silk Road.
First stop for any traveller should be the magnificent Registan, comprising three madrasahs, in the centre of the old town.
Completed in different eras between 1417 and 1660, the three buildings have been restored inside and out. The facades show symbols of both Islam and Zoroastrianism (an ancient pre-Islamic religion which is still practised by some Uzbeks today), while inside, the high-domed ceilings gleam with intricate gold leaf and bronze tiles.
Even more impressive is the nearby Shah-I Zinda necropolis – a series of mausoleums decorated with elaborate mosaics and glazed ‘majolica’ tiles – and the Gur-Emir, the mausoleum of Amir Timur.
Also known as Tamerlane, literally Timur the Lame (not quite as impressive as Alexander the Great, is it?), this 14th century military leader features prominently in Uzbekistan’s history books and you’ll hear a lot about him in Samarkand.
Another hugely respected figure is astronomer and mathematician Ulugh Beg. At the Afrasiab Museum, a 10-minute drive from Registan, you can geek out on star-gazing history and see the remains of the observatory he built nearly 600 years ago.
Architecture and science aside, they say Samarkand is the best place to sample ‘plov’, the national dish of Uzbekistan. Invented in the 10th century to fuel the army, this hearty blend of lamb, vegetables, spices and rice is usually made outside in big, deep pans – that’s how it was cooked up for me at Sharq Shirinliklari restaurant near the Registan. It’s a bit like the meatiest paella you’ve ever had and will certainly keep you going when you’ve got a full day of sightseeing planned.
A four-hour drive west of Samarkand, Bukhara is most famous for the Kalyan Minaret, a tower so breathtaking even Genghis Khan couldn’t bring himself to destroy it when he came marauding in the 13th century.
The sand-coloured 47 metre-high structure is referred to as a ‘beautiful lady without make-up’ (as opposed to the colourful tiled mosques seen all over the country) and is part of the serene Poi Kalan mosque complex. The other major architectural draw of the region is the Ark of Bukhara, a huge fortress that was home to the ruling emirs from the 5th century up until 1920.
But it’s outside the town that two of the most interesting sites, in my opinion, are found. First, Sitorai Mokhi-Khosa, the emir’s summer palace, completed in 1918, is beautiful to behold – not just because of the décor fit for a king, but because the rooms are peppered with examples of lavish ceremonial gowns and ‘suzani’ embroidery.
At my next stop, the Gijduvan Crafts centre (folkceramic.uz) near the town of Gijduvan, I get to try the ancient needlework technique myself alongside 90-year-old head of the family Abdulla, and her daughters and granddaughters, who sit in a circle on the floor, all quietly sewing the same large sheet of fabric.
I’m given a separate square with a pomegranate design drawn on, and shown how to do the looping stitch, which creates the characteristic raised pattern. Gradually filling in the deep red rounds and golden leaves is incredibly soothing, so much so that I spend the whole of the seven-hour flight back to the UK happily continuing my fruit-laden handiwork.
I thought I would bring home a few knick-knacks from Uzbekistan, but a whole new hobby? Now that’s a souvenir worth travelling for.
How to get there
Explore (explore.co.uk) offer a 12-day Golden Road to Samarkland escorted tour for £1,965 including flights. Various departures from April to October.
Uzbekistan Airways (uzairways.com) flies twice a week direct from London Heathrow to Tashkent, from £432 return.
- Press Association