Uzbekistan is crammed with top class heritage sites, including forts and mausoleums from ancient empires as well as historic Islamic mosques, madrassas and minarets. There is also loads of fun stuff, such as tasting plov and local wines, and getting scrubbed raw red clean in red hot hammams, with a bit of Soviet kitsch thrown in too. And it is all easy to access via modern trains and good quality boutique hotels. In a nutshell, Uzbekistan is perfect for ten days of exotica with two nights at each of the four essential destinations plus a couple of lovely day trips.
Apart from the capital, Tashkent, the three glamour stops are the ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. From Samarkand it is easy to reach the town of Shahrisabz, and from Khiva the deserts of Karakalpakstan.
The best way to get between these cities is by train. The new Spanish-built Afrosiyobs fill up so it is advisable to book ahead. This is not straightforward as the Uzbekistan Railways website is not accessible to foreigners. I recommend booking through a specialist operator; I used the excellent Advantour.
The distances are short enough between Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara that cars are an option, and they are essential for Shahrisabz and Karakalpakstan. Many have been converted from petrol to run on cheaper gas and you will see filling stations for both fuels everywhere. Almost every private vehicle is a Chevrolet as they have a monopoly on local manufacture and you can have any colour you like so long as it is white. You will also see occasional Soviet vintage Ladas and Volgas as well as donkey carts on the road, even in Tashkent.
Although these cities are highly developed with modern facilities, more than half the country is desert and almost two-thirds of people work on the land, where cattle and sheep breeding, and cotton and silk manufacturing are the mainstays. Therefore, the average monthly salary is only 3,500,000 soums – just over Є300 – making things exceptionally cheap for travellers. A top hotel outside the capital is less than Є100, a ticket for a first class bed on an overnight train costs just Є50, and you can eat in a premium restaurant with a bottle of local wine for about Є15.
Mobile data is generally good and there are ATMs in the cities where credit cards are also widely accepted. Few people speak English and those who do are likely to be students who will want to practice their skills on you. So Google Translate and Semaphore are your go-to aids. Russian is widely spoken but Uzbek is the national language. It is salom for hello and rahmat for thank you, though in reality absolutely everyone simply puts their right hand on their heart and bobs very slightly to offer thanks at any minor excuse – as you will too.
Winters are severe – it can get as low as -20°C – so they are best avoided. People say the best time to come is April-May when the snow has melted on the mountains and turned the land green, or September-October when the scorching heat – reaching as high as 40°C on the arid plains – has passed. However, I came in the summer and found it more than bearable and more than worth it because I had even the big-ticket attractions basically to myself.
In essence, nomads first settled on this land in the fifth century BC and created the Sogdian civilisation of city states that thrived across Central Asia until Arabs brought Islam in the seventh century. Despite repeated invasions of this territory, including most famously by Alexander the Great in the third century BC and Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century, the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva grew in wealth and power. This is primarily because they became key staging posts on the Silk Road, the 6,000 kilometre trading network from China through Central Asia and on to Persia and the Mediterranean that developed from the first century BC until it disintegrated in the fifteenth century, catalysed by the fragmentation of the Mongol Empire and the devastation of the Black Death.
All of Central Asia was gradually incorporated into the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century. This was the era of the Great Game as it was known in Britain, the Tournament of Shadows in Russia, a cat-and-mouse struggle for imperial dominance played out here by spies and puppet regimes. The Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic was established within the Soviet Union in 1924, with Tashkent the centre of local political power, until the collapse of the USSR.
Uzbekistan declared independence on 31 August 1991, confirmed with 98.2% support in a referendum later that year. The nation’s first president – for four successive terms, despite a constitutional limit of two – was hardman former First Secretary of the Communist Party, Islom Karimov. Karimov brutally suppressed, even massacred, radical Islamists.
The Soviet Union had all but extinguished religion from Uzbekistan: Jews fled while Christianity and Islam were quashed (though their monuments were largely untouched). While there are of course extremists in neighbouring states, most famously the Taliban in Afghanistan, Islam is slowly returning here in a very moderate form, and most Uzbeks are non-denominational Muslims. As a visitor, the only likely impact on you is the need to dress respectfully at the religious sites, as you would anywhere.
Karimov was also responsible for a series of controversial redevelopments deplored by UNESCO that have disfigured some of the sites you will visit. His successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who was elected in allegedly fraudulent circumstances when Karimov died in 2016, then re-elected in 2021, is considered a reformer of the authoritarian state. Although there is still no political or media freedom, he has deregulated the currency, ended enforced cotton-picking by students and workers, and offered visa-free travel to almost all nationalities.
The airport is in the south of the capital of Uzbekistan, only 20 minutes from the centre. There are virtually no traditional taxis though there is a local cab app called Yandex, but you will need an Uzbek sim card to access it. However, anywhere in the entire country if you stand by the side of the road and stick out your hand, within a few moments a private citizen will flash their lights in acknowledgement, pull over, and take you wherever you want to go in exchange for a few euros. I realise this may not be for everyone, but all the locals do it and I have done it dozens of times without any trouble at all. With police and security lurking on every street corner, you are likely safe and secure.
Although the signage and announcements on the Metro are all in Uzbek and Russian, it is easy to use because there are only three lines and most platforms have a staffer you can get to point where you should go. While the trains are just old, many of the stations are significant attractions in their own right because of their Soviet grand designs; the most impressive is at Kosmonavtlar.
For somewhere to stay, you have three options: the Hyatt Regency is by far the biggest and best hotel in the country; the Hotel Uzbekistan is former Soviet chic, and Ichan Qala is in the style of an ornate madrassa.
The national culinary obsession is plov – meat, vegetables and rice usually drowning in a vast vat of oil, and invariably cooked by men – and Beshqozon (aka the Central Asian Plov Centre) is the place to try regional variations, all of which claim it to be an unlikely aphrodisiac. Uzbekistan is no place to be a vegetarian and the National Food Restaurant is a marvellously authentic outlet for all kinds of meat. An unmissable experience is Sim-Sim, which has a lovely terrace out front and out back a large hall with elaborate decorations and loud local music where most evenings an enormous Uzbek wedding will be celebrated.
Some 2.5 million people, from a country of 35m and growing at about 0.5m a year, live in Tashkent, but you can see the main events in a day and everything of note in two. The centre of the city is Amir Timur Maydoni or Square. This was originally at the intersection of two main roads, but they have long gone, replaced by a huge park, though in 2010 Karimov controversially ordered the shading plane trees all be cut down for no obvious reason.
At its centre once stood Stalin (from the late 40s to 1961, when it was decreed that all Soviet statues of the discredited leader should be removed), then Marx, then after independence the square was renamed and its eponymous hero put there on a horse. Amir Timur was a fourteenth-century Turco-Mongol ruler who established the Timurid Empire, the last great conqueror in the Eurasion Steppe before the rise of the Islamic gunpowder empires in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He initiated a renaissance in art and architecture (many of his buildings are key sites in the country) and since the fall of the USSR he has been elevated to the status of national hero.
A walk ten minutes west through a long line of funfair stands and drinks stalls leads to Tsarist-era Romanov Palace and on the other side of the road the newer buildings of the Senate and the Cabinet. These are on the edge of Independence Square (formerly Lenin Square), another large and well-kept park, the entrance to which is framed by sixteen classical marble columns with statues of storks sitting on them. At its heart is the Independence Monument, a globe with the country’s borders outlined on it above a figure of a woman holding a baby in symbolism of the motherland. Nearby is the Crying Mother Monument, facing an eternal flame, honouring the 400,000 Uzbeks who died fighting Nazi Germany.
Historic Tashkent was completely flattened in April 1966 by an earthquake of 5.1 magnitude that had its epicentre right in the heart of the city. A powerful Memorial dedicated to the Stakhanovite Soviets, mostly Russians, who built the new city, is to the north of Independence Square.
Thankfully, a cluster of important Islamic monuments survived this horror and they are found at the Khast Imom Complex. This is next to the Centre of Islamic Civilisation, which is still under construction, and the imposing Hazroti Friday Mosque at the front, flanked by a pair of 54m minarets, which was built by Karimov in 2007. Behind here, on the other side of the giant plaza, is the gorgeous sixteenth-century Barak Khan Madrassa, though these days that is home to the makers and sellers of tourist trinkets.
Beyond that is the Mausoleum of Abu Bakr Kaffal Shoshi, a tenth century cleric, along with several other tombs. However, the star of the show, the most significant single artifact in Uzbekistan, lives in the humble building in the middle of the plaza. This is the Moyie Mubarek Library Museum, home to the enormous deerskin Osman Qur’an, the world’s oldest, dating from the seventh century, thought to have belonged to Uthman ibn Al Affan, the third caliph to succeed the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), and brought by Amir Timur from Iraq to Samarkand in the fourteenth century.
Not far from here is the Old Town, in the middle of which is the large green dome of Chorsu Bazaar, the biggest farmers’ market in Central Asia. Nuts and seeds and herbs and spices are all on the mezzanine balcony, all manner of meat is in the main circular hall, fruit and veg and rice and beans in nearby extensions, and kitchenware spills onto the streets all around.
Navoi Park, the city’s biggest green space, contains very different architecture side-by-side. There is some imposing Soviet brutalism, including the Oliy Majlis, the rubber-stamp Lower House of the legislature, and the Druzhby Narodov Theatre, by the fountains near the big flag; and there is also the Magic City neo-Disney family park sponsored by Pepsi.
In the north of the city is a 375m-tall classic Soviet TV Tower. You press the buttons in the lift yourself; on floor 6 is the 100m viewing platform and on floor 8 is the 220m Koinot revolving restaurant, an ideal spot for a green tea and some perspective.
It is only two hours by Afrosiyob or four hours by car, largely over flat and grassy land, from Tashkent to the small city of Samarkand. The former capital of the Sogdian Empire, then the capital of the Timurid Empire, this Silk Road stop and its attendant monuments are listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, despite expressed concerns about the standards of some aspects of recent renovations.
It is widely reported that the best hotel in town is the Grand Samarkand, which has a building on either side of Yalangtush Bakhodir Street, and the only decent restaurant is the excellent Platan (it is usually essential to book), which has a lovely terrace as well as fine-dining and casual rooms inside. For kitsch value, to see local people singing and dancing while eating, Restaurant Samarkand is a must; and al fresco Alt Stadt near the park also has music.
You should brace yourself for the Registan (Sandy Place) Complex of three colossal madrassas, in the heart of the Old Town, because it is one of those few heritage sites in the world that on first look properly takes your breath away. It is smothered in souvenir stalls but even so there is no doubting the magic of the place. It is all especially beautiful at night when the myna birds sing from the surrounding plane trees and hundreds of locals and regional tourists gather on the steps opposite to watch the sun go down and its lights come up. It is undoubtedly the outstanding moment of this trip.
The Ulugbek Madrassa in the centre dates from 1420; the Sher Dor (Lion) Madrassa on the right was added in 1636; and the Tilla Kari (Gold) Madrassa on the left in 1660. You can haul up the inside of the minaret to the back left for a commanding overlook if you ask the guys on the souvenir stand below it; they will surreptitiously show you the secret door for a small fee.
It is a ten-minute walk north, past the self-aggrandising statue of Karimov, to the gigantic Bibi Khanym Mosque, completed in 1404, with its 38m entrance portal, 40m cupola and 2km2 courtyard. The structure was significantly damaged by an earthquake in 1897 and over the past 40 years it has been rebuilt, though the interior of the small inner mosque behind the giant marble Qur’an in the quadrangle has been left untouched.
Near here is the Siyob Bazaar, which is both farmers’ and tourists’ market. A particular sensory pleasure is the section where you can smell and taste as many as twenty different types of bread.
Over the bridge and up the hill is Hazrat Hizr Mosque, dating from 1854, harbouring the tomb of Karimov, and offering fine views back to Bibi Khanym.
It is another ten-minute walk alongside the hilltop cemetery to reach Sha I Zindar (Tomb of the Living King), an outdoor corridor of immaculately blue-tiled mausoleums. The shrine of Qusam ibn Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) who brought Islam to Central Asia in the seventh century, was set here first, then both Timur and his grandson successor Ulugbek added family and courtiers over the years.
Timur had the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum constructed in 1404, in Russian Town, for Mohammed Sultan, his grandson and intended heir. He had planned to be buried himself in Shahrisabz, but when he died in 1405 his court laid him to rest here. Ulugbek was added in 1449.
There is also a massive statue of Timur, seated, a few hundred metres away. Near here is the Bagi Behisht Garden that once included one of the world’s first zoos, originally built in 1378 by Timur in honour of his wife Turmish Agha.
The Jewish Quarter is one of the oldest parts of town and it is easy to get lost in the narrow streets that are a pleasure to walk about. Jews are known to have settled in these lands since the twelfth century and in the 1970s the Uzbek Jewish community was more than 100,000 strong, with most in Samarkand and Bukhara. Yet by the turn of the century more than 90% had fled to Israel or the US. The ancient Rabbi of Samarkand will gladly show you around his even more ancient little synagogue that these days services as few as a hundred mostly elderly people.
On the north-easterly outskirts of town, mounds of earth are all there is to see of the archaeological site of Afrosiob, the old city destroyed by Genghis Khan in four days as he swept across Central Asia forging his great Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century.
Surprisingly, at least to me, all around Samarkand – and Bukhara too – there are vineyards. Despite the climate of freezing winters and baking summers, Russian merchants planted the first vines here in 1868, importing sweet grape varieties from the Crimea and Europe. Today, both whites and reds are made and sold in the region, and the merlot at least is drinkable. There are several wine factories you can taste them, the most popular being Hovrenko in town, where an oenologist will talk you through seven different wines – and three local brandies. There are also a number of local beers and vodkas.
Starting through the vineyards, it is a gorgeous 80km drive south to the small town of Shahrisabz, making it an easy day-trip from Samarkand. It takes two hours each way because the road winds through the spectacular Kitab Pass in the Zarafshan Mountains. This route was used by caravans on the Great Silk Road until the fifteenth century, by the Russian army to supply its forces in Afghanistan just 300km south after their invasion in 1980, and by heroin smugglers coming the other way today. At the top there is an excellent restaurant with a wonderful panorama that serves national food.
Formerly known as Kesh, Shahrisabz’s claim to status is as the birthplace in 1336 of Amir Timur. At its centre is his Summer Palace, Ak-Saray, the most ambitious of all his constructions and almost certainly the largest structure ever built in Central Asia. It was begun in 1380 though sadly all that remains are the blue, white and gold mosaics on the frames of the vast portico, standing 65m-tall, containing the inscription “if you doubt our power, look at our buildings”. Uzbekistan’s third, final and biggest statue of Timur is at its back.
South of here is a huge tourist park of imported pine trees and ornamental fountains that can never afford to contain any water as it is so scarce in this parched land, sculpted in 2014 when Karimov bulldozed the narrow streets of the historic medieval town.
Although Timur built the capital of his Empire in Samarkand, he planned Shahrisabz as the site of his own grave. Palace intrigues prevented it, and he is of course laid to rest in Samarkand. However, Jehangir, his eldest and favourite son, who died young, is here in the Dorus Saodat (Seat of Power and Might) Complex. Just behind his tomb is a humid underground bunker discovered in 1943 housing a gigantic headstone, the inscriptions on which indicate it was intended for Timur himself.
Opposite is the Dorut Tilovat Complex built by Ulugbek. This includes the large Kok Gumbaz (Blue Dome) Mosque that he put up in 1437 in honour of his father, as well as his glorious House of Meditation constructed in 1438.
As part of the reconstruction/desecration of Shahrisabz a decade ago, a rough defensive mound was built around these main sites. Hideously, this was formed from what was considered archaeological waste, including gold coins and parts of blue tiles, and you can easily scrape the soil and find these gems lying in the rubble there today.
It is 90-minutes by Afrosiyob from Samarkand to Bukhara train station, a 20 minute cab ride from the east of town. Bukhara is small and compact, and although there are a lot of sites, large and small, most can easily be walked as they are close together in the Old Town to the north-west of the city. They comprise another UNESCO World Heritage Site, considered the most complete example of a medieval settlement in Central Asia.
A good place to start is the 1927-built 33m-tall Water Tower now converted into Bukhara Tower with a viewing platform at the top, just above the quaint VIP Lounge of the restaurant at the bottom. It has fine views of the Ark Fortress across the road. There are several buildings in the fort, including the seventeenth century Throne Hall that hosted the coronation ceremony of Bukhara rulers as well as the eighteenth century Djome or Friday Mosque, and they are all informatively signposted. The storied zindan or dungeon, where British soldiers Stoddart and Connelly were notoriously executed in 1842, is outside the walls at the back.
The Bolo Hauz Mosque, with its external carved wooden pillars, is gorgeous and atmospheric, especially at prayer time when worshippers park their bicycles outside and the mosque is so bursting to overflow that many are forced to kneel on the street. There are park benches in the shade opposite from which to take it all in.
Not far is the Kalon Ensemble. On the left of the group is Mir I Arab, a working madrassa with two bright blue domes, built in 1536. On the right is the Kalon Mosque from 1514. Between them is the 47m-tall Kalon Minaret, built in 1127; this was considered such a masterpiece by even Genghis Khan that he ordered it spared as his forces destroyed everything else all around.
Undoubtedly the focal point of the Old Town is Lyabi-Hauz Plaza, a small square pool surrounded by mulberry trees with al fresco restaurants and tea houses on three sides, which grew on me the more I returned to it. On the water are three miniatures – of the Ismail Samani Mausoleum, the Kalon Minaret and the Char Minar – used as duck islands. This is the place to come for lunch or dinner, regardless of the quality of the food.
On the west side is the Nadir Divanbegi Khanaka and on the east its companion Madrassa, which hosts a cheesy folklore show of traditional singing and dancing between 6 and 8 each night. Sitting facing it on a park bench lost in thought, I was caught by surprise when a colourfully-dressed group of ladies visiting from the countryside surrounded me to take a photo of the rare white guy in town; so I got them back.
The nearby Kukaldosh Madrassa (1568-1579) is a sometime theatre for puppetry, a popular local tradition. Just along the road is very cute Chor Minor (1806-1807), a little madrassa with four bright blue minarets. Opposite that is a souvenir stand specialising in what is left of Soviet memorabilia.
Around here the sites come thick and fast, including the nondescript Synagogue serving the remains of the Jewish community. The covered bazaars are mostly aimed at tourists, with lots of puppets and ceramics. The Ulgbeck Madrassa and the Abdulazziz Madrassa, opposite each other, are both now homes for shops selling suzani, an embroidered tapestry of silk or cotton. The Magoki Attori, the oldest mosque in Central Asia, hosts a museum on carpet weaving.
Buried in the warren of streets is the magnificent sixteenth century Bozori Kord hammam. Turkish-style bathhouses are popular all over but this is the one to try. It is straight from a movie set with marble slabs on which you will be steamed, pummelled, scrubbed and moisturised within an inch of your life.
The whole area is rammed with little restaurants and boutique hotels, though the best ones such as the Sahid Zarafshon are a ten minute cab ride south of the Old Town.
West of the Old Town is Samani Park. Here there is a pair of massive madrassas facing each other: Abdulla Khan, named after a local ruler, and Modari Khan, his mother. More archaeologically significant is the tiny terracotta Ismail Samani Mausoleum, built in 905 for the founder of the Samanid Dynasty; the best perspective of it is from the fragile Ferris Wheel next door.
About 5km north of the centre is the little town of Buxoro, where in 1912 the last Emir of Bukhara built his Summer Palace, the Sitorai Mohi Khossa (Star Like the Moon). Once you have waded through the souvenir stands and the roaming peacocks, it is very pretty.
Around 10km west are the peaceful brown brick ruins of the Chor Bakr tenth century burial complex, which are currently undergoing renovation.
The Afrosiyob service has not yet been extended as far as Khiva, so the slow midday train from Bukhara gets in at half-six without stopping through the vast flat scrubby desert until it reaches the green oasis of Urgench, just 35km north-east.
Khiva is a small town, established 1,500 years ago. It was the last resting place of Silk Road caravans before crossing the desert to Iran, and from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries it developed a brutal slave market, trading Persians and Russians.
The Old Town, Ichan Qala, was the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Central Asia, even pre-dating the collapse of the USSR. It is enclosed in a 10m-tall corrugated perimeter wall, rebuilt in the sixteenth century on foundations laid in the tenth, that runs just 650mx400m. There are four portals, and while entry to Ichan Qala itself is free, the ticket booth for a two-day pass to access its monuments is just outside the West Gate. In here are jammed more than fifty historic buildings. At first glance it is a toy town tourist trap. However, it does manage to maintain a haunting atmosphere, particularly at night, and especially in summer when there are no more than twenty or so of us foreign tourists wandering around blighting the scene.
This is despite the plethora of tourist services built into the dusty edifice. There are numerous souvenir stands (this counts itself the home of Uzbek arts and crafts); dozens of hotels (Zarafshon and Arkanchi look like the best of them); and scores of restaurants (Terrassa Café has perfect panoramas, notably at sunset, and many have traditional tapchan seating, cross-legged on a large bed with a table of food in its centre).
On the right after entering through the West Gate is the stubby blue Kalta Minor Minaret. It is dazzling despite its rather disappointing backstory. It was begun in 1851 by Mohammed Amin, one of the Khans who ran the Khanate of Khiva between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. He intended it to be 70m high, but when he died in 1855 it had reached only 26m and his successors abandoned the project unfinished.
On the left after the West Gate is the most imposing structure in Ichan Qala: the Kuhna Ark Palace, built in the twelfth century by local rulers as their fortress and residence, but significantly extended in the seventeenth by the Khans who added the stables, the zindan and the dominating watchtower that is the place to be at sunset for warm-light views across the Old Town.
Opposite the Khuna Ark is the Mohammed Rakhim Mosque, built by the Khan who surrendered Khiva to Russia in 1873. Around the corner is the eighteenth century Juma Mosque, plain outside, with a single minaret, but inside is a forest of 218 carved wooden pillars, a handful of which date from the original tenth century mosque that stood on this site.
The Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum, with its big and bright turquoise dome, is one of the most impressive constructions in Ichan Qala. Pahlavon Mahmud was a poet and philosopher turned Khiva’s patron saint and his original fourteenth century tomb was rebuilt in the nineteenth, since when several Khans have also been entombed here.
The Abdullah Khan Madrassa and nearby Islom Hoja Madrassa were both added in 1910, and the main appeal is that you can climb the latter’s minaret for views of the Old Town, though it is currently closed for renovation.
Several of the most impressive nineteenth century monuments were the creations of Allakuli, known as “Builder Khan, including his Madrassa. His best work is the Tosh Hauvli Palace, constructed in the 1830s to rival the Kuhna Ark Palace. Its stand out feature is the blue-tiled harem.
Just outside the walls in the area of town known as Dichan Qala, by the West Gate, is the grand Narallabay Palace. This was the early twentieth century home of the local ruler, Isfandiyar Khan, who was murdered here.
Karakalpakstan is a semi-autonomous republic in the south-west of Uzbekistan bordering Turkmenistan and with close ties to Kazakhstan. It encircles Khiva and Urgench on the other side of the Amu Darya, the large river that in ancient times marked the boundary between Greater Iran and Central Asia. After crossing it you lose mobile data connection, and it is occasionally off-limits to travellers because of political protests against rule from Tashkent.
That can add to the difficulties of getting to the Aral Sea, a day-trip from Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, which is itself a long haul from Khiva. As recently as the 1960s, the Aral Sea was the fourth largest lake in the world, spread over an area of 70,000km2 at an average depth of 16m. Thanks to shocking excess theft from its tributary rivers to irrigate the cotton fields that were planted all around by the Soviet Union, the lake has receded, and the Aral Sea is now the Aralkum Desert.
Easier to access, after a two-hour drive from Khiva to the Kyzylkum Desert in Karakalpakstan north of Urgench, are some of the series of fortified settlements that sprang up to defend local tribal territories almost 2,000 years ago. Now branded the Golden Ring of Ancient Khorezm, the local Empire brought to an end by Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century, this land was traditionally known as Elliq Qala, meaning fifty fortresses, which is a very round approximation. Many of these have long been damaged and left to rot, and in reality only three are in any state to visit. For that it is essential to book a driver and a guide; Advantour or your hotel in Khiva can sort you out.
Toprak Qala was the capital of the Khorezm Empire, and the small settlement built here in the third century is currently the most completely unearthed monument in the Golden Ring. There is some minor reconstruction but it is easy to see from the mud brick foundations how the various rooms were laid out within the protecting walls. Today, Toprak Qala is surrounded by cotton fields and vineyards, and occasional donkeys and cows.
It is only 1km to Kyzyl (Red) Qala, a satellite look-out fort for the settlement at Toprak Qala. It is in urgent need of protection from irresponsible renovations and requires the attention of professional archaeologists before it is too late.
It is a 45-minute drive into the desert to one of the most pleasurable sites in the whole country, certainly the day I was there as not another soul was around to blur the magic. In the middle of the flat plain there are just two hills next to each other. On the higher one is Ayaz (Windy) Qala fortress complex, and the lower a satellite fortification; both date from the second century. It is a 10-minute scramble up to Ayaz Qala from the roadside. Only the ramparts remain but they are in good condition and there is no reconstruction at all. There are magnificent 360° panoramas over the apparently infinite desert, creating the illusion of being completely alone in the world.
In fact, hidden below, there is a small yurt campsite and a little farm for Bactrian camels, those with two humps native to the Central Asian Steppes. They are shorter and heavier than the one-hump dromedary camels found in the Middle East and North Africa.
To finish up, I took the classic fourteen-hour overnight (Soviet-era) train back from Urgench to Tashkent, which was full of locals and a handful of foreigners. My parting memory of this great trip is of the list of interesting things you are not encouraged to do in the train toilet.