Uzbekistan is well known for it’s position as a major transit centre along the Silk Road. The very name of Samarkand brings with it images of camel caravans and ancient bazaars. It was a wonderful place to photograph, although it can be a bit difficult at times with the kids. They don’t really have the patience to stand around and wait for people to pass, or the light to be right! The three major Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan are Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand. Rather than rush through all three, we decided to skip the smallest, Khiva. This is a long one, so grab something to drink and settle in! I hope you enjoy my photo journey along Uzbekistan’s Silk Road, through the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand.
I was a bit nervous about getting from Nukus to Bukhara. There are no trains, only shared taxis. Although it seems straight forward enough, anything that’s unknown can be a bit nerve-wracking the first time. One of the nice things about traveling as a family, is that the four of us fill up a car, so there’s no need to wait around for other passengers. The downside is that we then pay for the whole car!
The guy at the reception of our hotel called us a cab to the shared taxi stand, and told him where we were headed. We didn’t even need to do anything! When we arrived at the taxi stand, our driver found someone, negotiated with him, and then a number of men hauled our luggage from one car to the next and we were off! Well, almost! First, we stopped at a small shop to pick up a belt for the car. Then, we stopped at the mechanic to have it installed. And then we finally left! After 6 hours of a rather nerve-wracking ride, we arrived at our small family-run hostel in Bukhara.
If you don’t want to read the whole (giant) post, you can jump straight to
- The Details of our Stay
- Our Uzbekistan Budget
Our first stop was the Ark
A city within a city, this was the seat of the Bukhara Emir for centuries. The Russians took Bukhara in 1920 and destroyed about 3/4 of the fortress. The remaining 1/4 has been turned into a museum. It’s a massive structure that really dominates the centre of the city.
The stables (left) and a Royal bird cage (right).
It was nice to have an English guide, otherwise we would’ve had no idea what we were looking at. Even Kacela enjoyed the guide! Calais loves having a guide, but Kacela often complains that they “take too long”. Hopefully her attention span will lengthen a bit as this year progresses!
My second stop was Chor Minor. I ventured out first thing in the morning to catch it as the sun was coming up. Of course it was under construction, but I enjoyed wandering the streets before they filled up with tourists! The girls really wanted to come and watch the sunrise, but when I woke up everyone was sound asleep. So, I left them sleeping and took advantage of the quite time on my own. I love wandering the streets of a city as it’s just coming to life. It’s so quiet and peaceful, and it’s less marred by tourists and traffic!
I love how the towers seemed to glow in the soft morning light.
Kalon Minaret & Mosque
Everyone was awake after my early morning adventure to Chor Minor. We decided to beat the heat, and all headed to Kalon Mosque, just as it was opening at 8am. It was the perfect time to visit because we were the only ones inside! The Kalon Minaret was built in 1127 and is one of the oldest structures still standing in Uzbekistan. Genghis Khan was so impressed by it he didn’t destroy it!
Calais (left) and Randy (right) looking up at the Minaret to give a bit of perspective. It’s a whopping 47m tall!
The inside of the large courtyard of the Mosque. It’s said to be able to hold 10,000 people.
Lyabi-Hauz was our afternoon hang-out spot in Bukhara. It was a quick walk from our hotel, and surrounded by some decent restaurants and real coffee! The large pool in the centre was built in 1620 and is the last remaining pool in Bukhara. There used to be 200 pools throughout the city, but they were filled in by the Bolsheviks. Sitting by the side of the pool, flanked by two beautiful blue-tiled buildings, it’s easy to picture what it would’ve been like a century or more ago.
Samarkand is a larger, showier city compared to Bukhara. Where Bukhara felt cozy and comfortable, Samarkand was big and busy. It’s chalked full of Silk Road sites, and the cityscape is dotted with blue domes and towers in all directions. Even though there’s a lot to see, we decided to spend only 2 days in Samarkand. Bukhara is everyone’s favourite, so we weighted our time more in Bukhara than Samarkand.
Uzbekistan was starting to be a bit like my Europe trip in high school. On that trip we visited so many cathedrals, they all started to look like the last one and they stopped being impressive. We were on the verge of that happening in Uzbekistan. After awhile, the blue-tiled buildings all begin to blend together. I figured it was best to stick to a few select sites, and have that be enough.
This is the big one. It’s the Silk Road site that tops everyone’s list. The three Medressas that make up the Registan are amongst the oldest in the world, and are truly a site to behold. It’s almost an overload of blue tiled mosaic surrounding a large, central courtyard. At it’s peak, this must have been a bustling bazaar, full of travellers from all corners of Asia. Now it’s full of tourists, and the shops have turned into souvenir stands, but it still has a buzz about it.
During our visit there was a large stage was set up in the middle of the plaza. When we arrived, dancers filled the stage, preparing for a large festival. It was fun to watch the dancing, but it also pushed opening time from 9am to 11am.
As soon as it opened we headed for the entrance. It was hard to choose which of the three buildings to visit first, so we just went the opposite direction of the majority.
Sher Dor Madrassah
Finished in 1636, just before Tilla-Kari, the “Lion” Madrassah was the most underwhelming. Had it been on it’s own it likely would have been more impressive, but it just didn’t compare to the other two buildings in the complex.
The “Gold-covered” Madrassah had the most impressive interior, and a beautiful, tree-filled courtyard. It was completed in 1660 and is the newest of the three buildings.
The girls were quite taken aback by gold-covered walls and ceiling of the mosque.
The courtyard was also a lovely place to sit on a bench, under the trees, and just take it all in.
The Mosque with the beautiful golden ceiling (left), and a few men patiently waiting for their wives in the shade of a tree (right).
Left: One of the many “secret doors” that now leads to a tourist shop, but once likely led to a small classroom or dorm room. Right: The view of Sher Dor Madrassah while leaving Tilla-Kari.
There’s something special about this Madrassah. Likely, it’s because it’s the original. It was built in 1420, and has withstood time amazingly well. It’s hard to appreciate the sheer size of these buildings, but I’m sure when they were built they could be seen for miles.
Timur’s mausoleum was our favourite site in Samarkand. The Registan is large and impressive, but we all loved the mausoleum the best. We visited at sunset, just as it was closing, which likely also added to it being our favourite. The crowd was almost non-existent, and the lights came on as we were leaving, giving it all a beautiful ambiance.
When we were in the Registan we watched a video of the sights of Samarkand. It highlighted another golden ceiling. Kacela was pretty excited to walk through a tiny door and find it!
The Golden Ceiling
As we left the mausoleum the sun had set and the lights had come on. Lights shone on every archway and column. We were being ushered out as it was closing time, and the girls couldn’t understand why they would light up the building and kick us out!
The beautifully lit building at night
Following our Silk Road journey, we made our way back to Tashkent for a night, to Topchan Hostel, and then took a shared taxi (by ourselves) to Andijon. From Andijon it was easy to hop across the border at Dostyk into Kyrgyzstan, and we left Uzbekistan behind.
Read all about our exit from Kyrgyzstan here
The Details for the Silk Road
Where We Stayed
This was a cute little guesthouse tucked away down the alleyways just south of Lyabi Houz. Our room was spacious, with a private bathroom and small sitting room, and the A/C worked well. Bukhara is hot, so A/C is a must! The wifi kept us entertained when we were hanging out in the A/C. The owner’s son speaks great English, and the owner herself is super sweet. Breakfast was delicious every morning, and they were happy to feed us at whatever time was most convenient. I’d happily stay here again, especially because of the location.
Cost: $43.20 USD/night including breakfast for all 4 of us.
What We Did
Hands down, this was our favourite place in Bukhara. Surrounding the pool are mulberry trees as old as the pool itself, providing a lovely respite from the hot sun. It feels like a real oasis within the city. Top it off with ice cream and “real” coffee, and it can’t be beat! The best thing to do is sit and relax, but there are two blue-tiled buildings flanking either side of the pool if you’re looking to explore. The Madrassah to the East has a lovely interior courtyard lined with tourist shops, and is worth a wander especially after the sun sets. In the evening the calm oasis turns into a bit of a party. There are a couple bouncy castles, loud music, and people everywhere. It’s a drastic change to the day, but it’s equally as enjoyable!
I can’t comment on the inside of this building, but the exterior is quite peaceful and pretty. It was also worth it to wander around the surrounding neighbourhood, especially in the morning. There are a few little street markets that disappear once it starts to get hot.
Cost: No Charge to photo the exterior. It was under restoration at the time so it wasn’t possible to enter.
The Ark (with English guided tour)
This is a must-do when visiting Bukhara, in my opinion. It’s one of the few places we found with an English guide, and was totally worth it. It’s essentially a museum set inside a really cool, old fortress. We learned a lot about the history of Uzbekistan, and the Bukhara Khanate, and the take-over by the Bolsheviks. Many of the rooms are air conditioned, providing a reprieve from the heat. As an added bonus, there’s a small refreshment stand on the way in/out selling cold drinks and ice cream. Leave the ice cream for the end, it’s a great motivator to minimize the complaints.
Cost: 26000 ($4 CAD) English guide included (kids were free).
Kalon Mosque and Minaret
The other must-do in Bukhara is the Kalon Mosque and Minaret. I suggest a visit first thing in the morning before the crowds, when the light is beautiful. You might be lucky like us and get it all to yourself.
Cost: 14000 som ($2.15 CAD), 6000 som per adult, 2000 som for a camera.
Where We Ate
There wasn’t anything special about this restaurant, but we all were ready for a change from Uzbek food, and Bella Italia delivered. We had pizza, which was reasonably good, and sat outside in the shade while the girls played in the small kid’s area.
Cost: 65000 som ($10 CAD) for 2 pizzas, 10,000 som ($1.50 CAD) each for the girls to play!
This was our favourite restaurant in Bukhara. It’s just to the West of the Lyabi Houz, and has a lovely courtyard with great food. There’s an air conditioned room to the side of the courtyard, so you can escape from the sun if you want. This is where we ate! We had chicken tabaka (rotisserie), which we pretty much licked the plate clean, the usual tomato and cucumber salad, and lagman (noodle) soup.
Cost: 65000 som ($10 CAD).
This was our second favourite restaurant in Bukhara, and worth a visit! The entrance is tricky to find. It’s tucked away in a small alley, but there are signs all over so as long as you keep looking you’ll find it. It’s also located to the West of Lyabi Houz, but it’s on the south of the walk way, where Budredding is on the north side. The tables are on a lovely deck overlooking the rooftops. It’s better to eat once the sun has set to be out of the sun, but if you want to eat earlier there’s an air conditioned room at the back. The only problem with the room is it eliminates a lot of the ambiance and view. We suffered and ate outside (in the setting sun). We had pea salad (something different from cucumber and tomato!), plov and meatball soup.
Cost: 70000som ($10.70 CAD)
Pectopah Capon (The Lyabi Houz Restaurant)
The location of this restaurant is fantastic, right on the north edge of the Lyzbi Houz. We had a lovely seat overlooking the pool. Service was atrocious, however, but the food was okay. We had two large meat shashlik (kebobs), bread and 2 veggie skewers.
Cost: 60000 som ($9.20 CAD)
How We Got Around
It’s very easy to walk to most of the major sites in Bukhara. When you get tired of walking, or need a break from the sun, you can flag down a taxi. The best place to flag a taxi is at one of the major sites.
Cost: 3000-5000som ($0.45-$0.78 CAD) per ride.
How We Got to Bukhara
We arrived in Bukhara via a shared taxi (all to ourselves) from Nukus. This is really the only way if you’re coming from the West. It takes about 6 hours. The surface of the road varied greatly from smooth to bumpy. So, if you get car-sick, bring Gravol!
If you’re arriving from the East you can take a train from Tashkent via Samarkand.
Cost: 500,000 som ($77 CAD) for the entire taxi
Where We Stayed
I wanted a reasonably priced hotel within walking distance of the Register, and Hotel Ishonch was just that. The hotel was comfortable, breakfast was reasonable, and we could easily walk to a number of sites. Our family room had 4 single beds, A/C and a large bathroom.
Cost: $45 US/night
What We Did
This is THE biggest Silk Road site in Uzbekistan, and is worth a visit. Because it’s the biggest site, it’s the busiest as well. It doesn’t open until 11am in late July, but the rest of the year it opens around 9am. There’s a lot to see, and you could easily spend a few hours touring the three buildings. If you are able to, it would be worth hiring an English guide before you visit, as surprisingly there wasn’t one available on site.
The ticket is good for the whole day, but you have to let the gate attendant know you want to return so he gives your ticket back. This is useful if you want to come back and photograph the different buildings with different lighting.
Cost: 50000 som ($7.70 CAD), the kids were free. It should have cost 57,000 som but the man gave us a discount. He didn’t hand us a ticket, so I think our “discount” meant the money went straight into his pocket!
The best time to visit is at sunset, just before the museum closes at 8pm. By this point, the crowds have cleared out and it has a peaceful feel to it, the way a mausoleum should. You’ll also be able to appreciate the complex all lit up, which was truly a spectacular site. The mausoleum and grounds are small, and only require a short time to visit, an hour should be plenty.
Cost: 38000 som ($5.85 CAD), the kids were free.
Where We Ate
This restaurant was a short walk from our hotel, and had a bit of variety compared to many other restaurants. Randy ordered spaghetti, I ordered kebabs and the girls ordered soup (as usually). We went back a second time for coffee and ice cream. Service was good, although the kebabs took a long time, one of the waiters spoke English, and there was free wifi.
Cost: 42000 som ($6.50 CAD) for dinner and 27000 som ($4.15 CAD) for coffee & ice cream.
The location of this restaurant was ideal, as it was directly across the street from the Registan. It’s an open-air restaurant on the second floor of the building, overlooking the busy street below. The food was similar to everywhere else, and they had a number of fans misting water near the tables to cool things down. I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat here, but it was a good enough stop and we were ready to eat!
Cost: 47000 som ($7.25 CAD)
How We Got Around
I picked a hotel that was central so we were able to walk to everything. Once, when the girls were tired, we hailed a cab on the street to take us the short distance to our hotel. Cabs are cheap and plentiful.
Cost: 1000-3000 som ($0.15-$0.45 CAD) within the city centre and 4000 som ($0.60 CAD) from the centre to the train station.
How We Got To Samarkand
Samarkand is well situated along the railway line, and many trains pass through every day. We chose to take the Afrosab, the fancy, new, air conditioned bullet train. The ride was about 2 hours and it was by far the most comfortable train we rode in Uzbekistan!
Cost from Bukhara to Samarkand: Adult – 52000 som ($8 CAD), Child – 19500 som ($3 CAD) for a total of 146000 som ($22 CAD)
We attempted to take the Afrosab from Samarkand to Tashkent, but it was sold out. Instead, we got the Sharq, which we were told was a fast train as well. It may have been faster than the old, soviet-era local trains, but it was no Afrosab! There was no air conditioning, and even at 10pm the train carriage was quite hot. We survived the 3hr journey, and if I didn’t know how amazing the Afrosab was I likely wouldn’t complain, but it was a definitely step down and in my opinion is worth it to spend the little bit extra money and book ahead far enough in advance to take the Afrosab.
It’s advisable to have a tour-agency book the tickets if you’re only spending a few days in each city. We tried to book the Samarkand-Tashkent train in Bukhara and were told it wasn’t possible.
Cost from Samarkand to Tashkent: Adult – 40000 som ($6.15 CAD), Child – 14000 som ($2.15 CAD) for a total of 128,000 som.
Our Uzbekistan Budget
Uzbekistan was very reasonable to travel in, even with our super-splurge Aral Sea tour. Without the tour our daily average was $108.34 CAD! This did a good job of balancing out our almost $1000 trip to the Sea. It’s possible to visit for much cheaper than this, but our budget was comfortable and worked well for us.
Our daily average in Uzbekistan was: $156.49 CAD
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