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A Journey Through Uzbekistan: From City Shrines To Desert Dunes

This month, Uzbekistan celebrates 32 years of independence. As the Central Asian country continues to broaden its journey into tourism, Citizen Femme visited to explore the ‘land of a thousand shrines’ – finding that they surpass all expectations.

On an especially sweltering morning in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, I ducked into a small roadside shop in search of snacks and bottled water.

It was only 9:15AM and already hovering around 30 degrees celsius. Having lived in Athens, Greece, for the past seven years, the heat wasn’t yet unbearable. What was unbearable, however, was the hotel breakfast we’d been presented with over the past four days.

This morning, it had been particularly disappointing and I was finally taking matters into my own hands. With fifteen minutes to spare before our departure for the next city on our tour, I dashed out of the hotel’s front door and ran across the street, where I had seen several mini markets on my walk home from the domed shopping arcades the night before. In truth, I had been slowly hatching my escape from the hotel breakfasts since day one of the trip and so had been on the lookout for local supermarkets and mini markets in each new city we visited. Perhaps I’d been staying at the wrong hotels, but hotel breakfast is not one of the strengths of what is otherwise a wonderful, welcoming and beautiful country.

Still stashed away in my backpack, I had some fresh apricots and cherries from the supermarket in the capital, Tashkent, that I visited hours after landing – an experience in and of itself. But I needed something a bit more substantial – and more local – for the long ride ahead of us; a five-hour drive to a yurt encampment, which I was hoping would be a peaceful end to a short yet packed trip. I found a big tub of tangy Uzbek yoghurt, local honey, and an ever-so-slightly sweet chewy bread dotted with raisins.

Flying In

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

We’d started our journey in Tashkent, the country’s bustling and vibrant capital city. By day two we were already aboard the punctual and pristine Afrosiyob train, whizzing by lush fields and hills, on our way to Samarkand. Despite the difficulty of buying train tickets online, and the limited schedule, travelling by train in Uzbekistan, a country of 173 square miles, is the fastest and most comfortable way. We took the train between most stops on our trip, and I’d recommend doing the same.

In Samarkand, we had a whirlwind two days travelling from one monument and historic site to the next. Places we visited of note were: the exquisite blue tiled Registan Square with its surrounding three madrassas (religious schools); the famous Amir Temur Mausoleum with elaborate gilded and mosaiced ceilings; the beautifully restored Bibi-Khanym Mosque, and the Shah-i-Zinda, also known as the ’Tomb of the Living King’ which holds the 7th century grave of the cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, Qusam.

In a country where each monument is more spectacular than the next, at a certain point I started to wonder when we would reach the limit of that brilliance. But there was no limit. Uzbekistan, and its monuments in particular, surpass all expectations. 

By the time we arrived in Bukhara, I had gotten my feet under me and managed to break away from my group at least once a day to shop and explore the city alone. There is a certain vulnerability and openness that comes with travelling and exploring solo, so in truth, I could’ve done without the guided group tour I was on. Sadly, however, because the infrastructure is still not quite ready for solo travellers, site-seeing without a tour guide is also not a very fulfilling way to see these breathtaking sites.


Bolo Hauz Mosque in Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Bolo Hauz Mosque in Bukhara, Uzbekistan

We stayed in Bukhara for the most consecutive days – three – and I was thankful for this. Bukhara is a much smaller, more manageable city than Tashkent or Samarkand. Most sites and historical monuments are within walking distance, and the domed shopping area felt straight out of the movies. In Bukhara, we visited the Samanid Mausoleum, Chor-Minar, The Ark of Bukhara, Bolo Hauz Mosque, Ulugbeg Madrassah and the Bahauddin Naqshbandi Bukhari Memorial Complex. 

I also did the most solo exploring in this city. Even at night, alone on the unlit backstreets, there was an intense feeling of safety. As a woman, I value this feeling above everything else because it allows me to relax into the culture of the country I’m visiting; it allows me to experience everything on a much deeper level when I don’t have to worry about my safety. The highlight of my trip came one evening during a simple encounter with street musicians and a lively crowd of locals – young and old, men and women – who danced and sang and clapped around the musicians for hours. I was invisible in their midst – a relief – and was so taken in by the scene that I lost track of time and had to run back to the restaurant where my group was just digging into our dinner.


Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

From Bukhara we took a bus through the Nurata district and onwards, into the desert, where we would be spending the night in a yurt encampment. It was hard to believe that in a matter of only a few hours, we’d left the busy city of Bukhara behind and were now in the desert surrounded by camels, sand dunes and scrappy bushes, and with no phone service or even electricity. After several hours of exploring the dunes and taking in the silence of the desert, dinner was served. As was typical, we ate an abundance of meat, cooked vegetables, hand-pulled noodles, and mounds of fresh herbs.


The yurt encampment at Aydarkul, Uzbekistan

The yurt encampment at Aydarkul, Uzbekistan

After dinner a bonfire was lit and a local musician played the Tanbur (a guitar-like instrument) and sang traditional songs for hours, until one by one we all drifted back to our yurts. Our one night in the desert was the perfect end to a wonderfully full trip. With no phone, no laptop and only a headlamp to read my book by, I finally fell asleep to silence.

What You Need To Know

Prior to my trip to Uzbekistan, I knew nothing about the country other than it was a pivotal stop on the ancient silk route that ran from China all the way to modern day Turkey. Here’s what I would have liked to have known before my trip to Uzbekistan:

Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s most populous country, yet it is also incredibly safe and the people are kind and welcoming. This does not mean it’s easy to visit the country as a solo traveller, however. Very few people speak English, especially at the historical sites and monuments, and the infrastructure is not yet ready for an influx of independent, solo travellers. Buying train tickets, for example, involves physically going to the ticket office at the train station because the process to purchase them online is convoluted; I’m still unclear whether or not you can use a credit or debit card for the purchase. But, things appear to be changing, and changing quite fast.


A Tashkent metro station

A Tashkent metro station

Since taking office in 2016, Uzbekistan’s first democratically elected president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has spearheaded a massive push to increase tourism to the country. “Tourism development in Uzbekistan accelerated after President Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016,” explains Sophie Ibbotson, Uzbekistan’s Tourism Ambassador to the UK since 2019. “Early on he announced that he had two priorities for his presidency – foreign investment and tourism – and that set the direction for government reforms and gave confidence to the private sector to invest,” she continues.

In a bold move, Mirziyoyev’s administration also recently removed tourist visa requirements for citizens from more than 90 countries – including those with British passports – easing their arrival into the country. His administration has also done away with other restrictions, too, like the requirement that foreign visitors report their whereabouts to authorities. In all, according to a recent Al Jazeera article, Mirziyoyev has allocated about $17.8 million for tourism development from 2024 to 2025.

And it shows. “There’s a strong correlation between tourism and infrastructure development,” says Ibbotson. “Already we are seeing upgrades to Uzbekistan’s airports, rail and road networks, which benefit all sectors of the economy; and there’s investment in energy and water infrastructure, too, to meet increased demands.” To the point of foreign language knowledge, Ibbotson says that in order to “develop tourism, Uzbekistan has to invest in human capital, including foreign language training and customer service, skills which all industries need.” The tour guides I spoke to during my trip would agree – several of them only a few years into the job.

“Uzbekistan’s strength as a tourism destination and as a country is in its diversity, Ibbotson continues. “I know of nowhere else in the world which has such an extraordinary collection of cultural heritage monuments but also superb locations for hiking and skiing; rich traditions of music, literature, and dance, and also thriving contemporary institutions such as the Ilkhom Theatre and the Savitsky Museum.” What’s more, she says, “these locations are easily accessible, so you can have incredibly varied experiences even in a week-long holiday.”

From the short week I spent in Uzbekistan, I can see what she means.

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