A trip into history down the silk route to an exotic past,well its certainly all of that, so if you don't like lots of breathtaking Islamic architecture and a feeling that Tarmarlane just might still be round the corner, think again. I,however, couldn't wait for a history fix in the fine array of Mosques Mausoleums and Madrassahs (not to mention yurts,tea houses and shopping domes) What's best? Khiva, the breathtaking walled city at sunset from one of the towers? Bokhara, a shopping fest of fabrics, jewellery and intricate Persian style paintings sold in the ancient Trading Domes and afterwards tea (beer) beneath old trees round the pool in the scenic centre? Or maybe Samarkand with its Registan Square, best in the early morning when you (and the local police) have it almost to yourselves. For a small personal donation (bribe) the officer on duty will let you climb a minaret for a fantastic if unsteady view over the town. This is not for those of a nervous disposition! All good ,well actually ,very very good, but the best bit for me was an evening classical concert held just for our group in the hall of the Mosque with its brilliant acoustics. Accompanied by local musicians, playing instruments I didn't recognise, a fine if scary Uzbek soprano sang local folk songs and classical pieces. As there was a power cut the centuries old hall was lit by candles , when she sang 'Ave Maria' the shivers sent down my spine were not just due to the cold.
This trip involves a couple of long hot and bumpy drives across the vast steppes (interesting scenery-grass, flat grass, more grass, grass- you get the idea).Our drivers The Uzbek Cowboy and George Bush Lookalike while absolutely excellent drivers in every way favoured heavy metal music, so if your preference is a little less Rock and Roll and a little more musical bring an i-pod. You get to drink tea everywhere from fancy little dishes, although our group used them for slightly stronger liquids. If you are going to buy vodka only go for the dear stuff (about £2.50a bottle) the cheap one WILL give you a headache. Food also might be a surprise. I wouldn't rate Uzbek cuisine as the next food trend but we ate well sometimes in peoples houses for home cooking, I particularly liked manti-steamed dumplings and lagman meat noodle soup. I know the veggies in the group struggled a bit as often a non- meat meal meant just picking out the offending bits in the kitchen or using meat stock to make veg soup so be warned. Morat, our ever helpful/practical tour leader insisted we end each meal with a large slug of the above vodka "for disinfect" a great excuse -works though. A must do is Samarkand daily market. Loads of ladies with prams full of the distinctive stamped bread loaves, all things dried fruit and nutty with lots of free tastes from the friendly traders and a very weird area - strictly male only - groups in traditional hats arguing , hand waving and haggling over sacks of obviously a very special and exotic commodity - Rhubarb. I have no idea what that was about but the men found it important. Uzbekistan is definitely different but it's also fascinating, incredibly photogenic especially if your thing is big blue buildings. It feels safe with friendly people- from the ladies selling pashimas who go for the soft sell, the gypsies who for a small fee will sell a wolfs tooth charm or if senior enough bless you with holy smoke from a saucepan of burning twigs - not a scam the local traders won't start work until they have had smoke waved over them and their stock, to the groups of youths on street corners who in a manner very unlike those at home smile, bow and wish you good day. Its not like anywhere else and you need a sense of adventure and a sense of humour, along with a torch, lots of wet wipes and no sense of smell for the yurt camp , an awesome experience of upmarket camping and very downmarket toilets just watch out for camels!! and beware- green tea is highly addictive. Never mind everyone you know will think you are mad -go to Uzbekistan anyway you probably won't regret it. (UZ -4th April 2010)