The Silk Road


NOT SMOOTH BUT DEFINITELY SUBLIME

Uzbekistan is synonymous with the Silk Road, with much of this famous trade route worming its way in and out of what was then known as Mawarannahr. Pun intended. Because it was the worms’ much sought after silk, created from their cocoons, which led to the creation of one of the most famous caravan and commercial routes ever. Uzbekistan was at its centre, with towns like Bukhara and Samarkand bursting with life since well before the Common Era. However, with trade comes a thirst for territory, and with that comes turbulence. And Uzbekistan has seen its fair share of that. Along the way, however, cultures fought for survival and there is no better place to see the strength of those efforts, than in Uzbekistan.

What is the Silk Road?


There is no actual single Silk Road, but more of a series of routes that traversed Central Asia into Europe and which was considered the world’s first major commercial highway. Its name was coined by a German geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen, in 1877, and it wasn’t just used for trading the East’s much coveted silk but also many other precious products such as porcelain and paper (still famous in Samarkand). Going the other direction, when the traders travelled west to east, they brought wine, wool and exotic fruits and nuts and, of course, wine.

It was only when Europeans started exploring new trade routes by sea from the 13th century onwards that the Silk Road started to lose favour. Uzbekistan’s commercial power weakened, and its political power did too. In the early 16th century the country’s infamous Timurid Empire broke up, and the country was divided up into khanates. In-fighting between these Khanates made the country vulnerable, and so in stepped the Russians in 1865. International trade was not a biggie for the Russians, and so the conversion of silk to Soviet rule saw the end of this major trading route in Uzbekistan.

How can we visit the Silk Road today?


You can visit the important towns and regions of Uzbekistan’s Silk Road on a small group tour or tailor made trip with an expert guide and driver, in as little as eight days. A trip of this length gives time to discover the ancient architectural wonders of Samarkand and Bukhara as well as the Kyzyl Kum Desert, where you can stay in a traditional yurt camp or trek on camels, just as the real Silk Road merchants would have done.
A two-week journey to visit the cities of the Silk Road will also take you into Turkmenistan, visiting additional highlights such as Merv, a series of walled towns reflecting their passage through time. This journey takes you on a wonderful circuit, starting in Tashkent in Uzbekistan, exploring the country’s Silk Road highlights, then into Turkmenistan, and finally back into the north of Uzbekistan to visit Khiva. This is one place where you will feel as if you are back in ancient times, as you enter the untouristy, old town of Ichan Qala, with an expansive array of mosques, mausoleums and minarets.
Another option for exploring the Silk Road is to travel by luxury train, on a private charter that takes you from Tashkent in Uzbekistan, through Turkmenistan and then completing your silky sojourn in Tehran, in Iran. This is just about the most out-of-this-world way to explore this historic route, giving you time to hop off and explore each important city along the way, as you wine and dine your way across the region in style.

Where can I buy silk?


Thankfully not all the old ways have been lost. In fact, as Uzbekistan slowly wakes up to the disastrous impacts that the cotton industry has had on its country, environmentally and socially, many of these old traditional crafts are being revived. International fashion designers are recognising the skills of the silk makers, whose ancient practices known as sericulture, have been seen on the catwalks in recent years.
There are two types of silk to look out for: Suzani is a fabric embroidered with silk threads, and ikat is a fabric entirely woven with hand spun silk yarn. Each suzani tells a story, of course, depending on the region’s heritage. The heart of ikat weaving is in the Fergana Valley, and witnessing the production of these beautiful creations will make your Uzbek holiday complete. For shopping, Khiva and Bukhara are famous for silk carpets, Margilan for garments and Samarkand is reviving its exquisite paper making tradition – with silk, of course.
Read our Silk Road travel guide for more details.

Uzbekistan’s Silk Road travel advice


WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY


Jonny Bealby from our expert Silk Road supplier, Wild Frontiers:

The wonderful bits


“The Silk Road passes through many amazing countries and sites, but while Kyrgyzstan is known for its stunning mountainous landscapes and nomadic culture, Tajikistan for the wild Pamirs and Turkmenistan for its quirky capital city, Uzbekistan is known for its superb Islamic architecture and really whatever else you do here this is the highlight. The sites of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are truly world class and certainly reason enough to make a special visit.”

The less wonderful bits


“The roads in Central Asia are very bad and travelling between places by minibus or private car can be a bit hell raising, although your driver will be very adept at swerving around potholes. You will keep to a schedule because lengthy road journeys will be taken into account and extra time is allowed for these by your tour operators, but people should be aware that the roads are bumpy and uncomfortable, so it’s best to keep calm and be patient.”
Hello.
If you'd like to chat about Uzbekistan or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.
Rosy & team.
01273 823 700
Photo credits: [Top box - Samarkand: Kalpak Travel] [Yurts in the desert: Chris Shervey] [Taking the train: Mon Œil] [Where can I buy silk: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra] [The wonderful bits: Kalpak Travel] [Helpdesk: INSAGO]
Written by Catherine Mack
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