Take a detour away from the average vacation destination and head to Uzbekistan, once the epicenter of the Silk Road. Ker & Downey designer Nicole Porto explains why you should embark on an enchanting journey to Uzbekistan.
As told to Rina Chandarana for Quest Magazine
Open a page of One Thousand and One Nights and it is not outlandish to imagine that Scheherazade’s tales of flying carpets, princesses in opulent palaces, and genies trapped in lamps are set against Uzbekistan‘s magical landscapes.
My wish was to see it all with my own eyes.
My journey started in Uzbekistan’s capital of Tashkent and continued by private transfer to each of the country’s many Silk Road stops — a luxurious option compared to those of days gone by, when traders would have traversed the terrain by camel and horse.
Merchants traveling through Uzbekistan on the ancient Silk Road that connected Asia, Europe. and Africa not only brought sugar, spices, gemstones, and rugs, but also the cultures and beliefs of faraway lands which converged in the cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva. It was this merging of civilizations that made Uzbekistan’s centers important to trade, while philosophy, mathematics, and religious studies flourished in the schools known as madrasahs.
Famous invaders dreamed of controlling this geographic bull’s-eye, including Ghengis Khan and Alexander the Great. But it was the indomitable Turco-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane (known as Timur), founder of the Timurid Empire spanning Persia and Central Asia, whose influence is apparent in the county’s 14th-century Islamic-influenced architectural delights: think mosques with rounded minarets rimmed with tiled bands, and a plethora of bulbous domes dotting city skylines. On one Samarkand arch I spied an inscription left behind by Timur, “If you have any doubt about our power, look at our buildings.”
Uzbekistan’s architectural know-how was so impressive that its influence carried into Iran and India, where Timur’s descendants formed the Mughal empire and built the world-renowned Taj Mahal. Even in death, the conqueror is surrounded by opulence. His final resting place, the UNESCO World Heritage site Gūr-i Amīr (which translates to “Tomb of the Commander”) in Samarkand, is a stunning design feat boasting gold inscriptions on its walls and an aquamarine tiled dome.
Stalls spilling over with jewelry, silk carpets, and pottery offer a glimpse into what these markets throughout the country must have looked like so long ago. Sellers call out from behind heaps of dried nuts and bolts of brocade-patterned and paisley fabric colored with saffron dye — not only to haggle, but to also to share their pride in Uzbekistan’s profound history.
The copious swirls, arches, and restored geometric patterns seen in the country’s distinct architecture vie for my attention and lead me into some type of daze. Looking closely, I spot a Chinese dragon and Persian bird, symbolic of Uzbekistan’s cross-cultural influences, plastered in tile in Bukhara’s Abdulaziz-Khan Madrasah. To this day, students still learn about Uzbekistan’s rich heritage of ceramics, textiles, and miniature paintings.
At one of the city’s markets I unfurl a 1912 black-and-white photograph of tradesmen in long robes, white turbans wrapped around their heads, the Kalyan minaret rising behind them. The city’s voluptuous blue domes, cloaked in delicate tulips and lotus decorations, punctuate the sky, creating a swath of turquoise, aqua, azure, and cobalt.
Immersing myself in local customs, I pay a visit to newlyweds in Bukhara. Wearing a long red tunic embroidered with golden threads and a beaded hat atop her dark hair, a new bride greets me at the door of her home with a welcoming hug. She leads me towards a table covered in a spread of nuts, candies, and dumplings. There’s also freshly baked bread to sop up steaming bowls of home-cooked stews ladled onto dill-covered noodles. The ingredients in these dishes — cumin, cinnamon, and Persian barberries — are symbolic of the many cultures that have passed through this land.
The bride and her relatives perform a traditional dance as I clap and sip on a cup of green tea served in a glazed cup painted with blue and white curls — a typical Uzbek design depicting powdery puffs of cotton, the country’s main cash crop. It seems nothing in this land is without a punch of pattern and color. This place is vivid, living history — a glorious kaleidoscope of life.