Central Asia: rebuilding a heritage

Central Asia: rebuilding a heritage

I spent a couple of weeks this summer in Central Asia, visiting the Silk Road nations of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

These countries have had a chequered history. From a rich heritage as trading posts, and at the heart of Timur’s vast empire, all three nations have natural beauty but also magnificent historic cities, fortresses, mosques and madrassahs which play a substantial part in their heritage. All three countries have withstood countless invasions and destruction of the places they held dear, but they have always rebuilt.

Then along came the Soviet Union. The nations of Central Asia were swept into the vast Soviet Empire, and religion was outlawed; history was pushed aside in favour of modernity and communist ideals. Land was swept up into collective farms, native Russians moved in in their millions, and the old ways were abandoned.

The Soviet heritage is different in each country. In Uzbekistan, Russian holds secondary status to Uzbek, and the Uzbek language itself, formerly written in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, has been latinised. However, Russian is still seen as the language of opportunity. Many Uzbek children attend Russian language schools, and while Uzbekistan is keen to move on from the communist period, they do so whilst retaining the best of the 20th century.

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The stunning Shakhi-Zinda Necropolis makes a good case for restoration.

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are a little different. In both countries, Russian is still the dominant language; one tour guide I met in Kyrgyzstan was a native Kyrgyz in her early 40s, but couldn’t speak her native language. Kazakh is still written in the Cyrillic alphabet and all signs are bilingual, written first in Kazakh, then in Russian. In Kyrgyzstan, I don’t recall seeing the Kyrgyz language written at all, although I heard it spoken in the mountains.

All three countries are moving forward in different ways, too. Kyrgyzstan knows it has outstanding natural beauty, incredible hiking and a rich nomadic heritage which the world is slowly discovering. Its burgeoning tourist industry is mainly built around this natural resource, and while hotels and resorts are springing up, enough of the country is wild and mountainous that the impact will hopefully not be too destructive. In Kazakhstan they value modernity; Nazarbaev’s showpiece capital, Astana, is proof enough of that, but in the southern regions I visited it was also in evidence. Roads are being tarmacked; the overnight train we took from Shymkent to Almaty was sparklingly modern, and the streets of the country’s biggest city are currently a building site as the old pavements are dug up, in favour of shiny new block paving and polished civic pride.

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A photo shows Samarkand’s Registan Square as it was in 1960, prior to reconstruction.

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Registan Square as it is today. Rebuilt, dazzling and in use as a public space once more (here for a concert).

Uzbekistan, however, is very much looking to the past for its future. The quantity and quality of historic buildings in the country is just incredible, and Uzbekistan itself has far more of an Islamic feel than its neighbours. The mosques and madrassahs were largely ignored during the Soviet period, and fell into disuse and disrepair. Since independence, Uzbekistan has ploughed phenomenal resources into restoring and repairing these monuments, and its blossoming tourist industry is proof that it is money well spent. I went to Uzbekistan expecting to be blown away, but I didn’t expect to be blown away to the degree that I was.

But this restoration and reparation has left the mosques and monuments looking shiny and new. Visiting, you get an overwhelming sense of what they looked like when they were first built, but so much of each building is restored that it’s hard to know what is new and what is original. Were those shiny blue tiles the same ones that 15th-century dervishes ran their hands over as they explored their new home? Probably not. In some buildings, patches of the walls have been left unrestored so the visitor can see the original artwork. But that means that the remainder of the building is brand new.

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The Bibi Khanym Mosque in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. From the side the reconstruction is clear.

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The inside of the Bib Khanyn mosque is unrestored, and not structurally safe. A glimpse into what much of Central Asia’s heritage looked like at the end of the Soviet period.

In southern Kazakhstan, we visited the cities of Otrar and Sauran. Both were razed to the ground, or crumbled there naturally over time. At Otrar, restoration is already complete. Only the gateway to the city has been rebuilt; shiny and new, there is no mistaking it for a 14th-century original, but it imparts the same sense of awe that would have struck the first visitors to the citadel. Inside, on top of the hill on which Otrar was built, the remainder of the site exists as low walls of reasonably uniform height. During the restoration process, the remnants of each building were pieced together to show the layout of each house, palace and mosque. What is there is not entirely original, although no new materials have been used.

At Sauran this is even more in evidence, as restoration work is still ongoing. In a true testament to a world before health and safety regulations ran amok in the West, we were able to visit the site alongside the renovators, stepping around wheelbarrows, diggers and workmen with impunity. It also meant we saw much of the site untouched, which further reinforced the difference between the original ruins and the put-together version we saw at Otrar. At Sauran, most of what we saw hadn’t been moved for hundreds of years.

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The ruins of Sauran, Kazakhstan, are still in the process of restoration.

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An example of what the rest of Sauran will still look like. Such restoration makes the original buildings easier to imagine, but is it the right thing to do?

This isn’t my first encounter with a country keen to revive a culture of which it is proud, and which was destroyed by invaders. In South Korea, repeated invasion by the Chinese and, especially, the Japanese, destroyed the royal palaces and the monarchy along with it. The monarchy can’t be recovered, by the Koreans have rebuilt their palaces, and the ceremonial changing of the guard takes place every day to reaffirm national pride in their legacy.

The question is, does it matter? What is more important, reviving and celebrating a culture or sticking firmly to the idea that antiques must remain so? On balance, I’m personally not sure there is any value in keeping old things for old things’ sake. What is more important, to me, is that the custodians of this heritage – the peoples of the countries themselves – are able to revive their national pride and enjoy these buildings, sites and legacies in the way they were designed to be used and enjoyed. Kazakhs can once again imagine themselves walking the streets of Otrar or (soon) Sauran; Uzbeks can admire their citadels, pay respect at mausoleums and worship in their historic mosques. I don’t believe we should be stuck in the past for the past’s sake. It’s wonderful to see the abandoned heritage of Central Asia being valued once again.

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The Bolo Hauz mosque, Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Restoration means buildings can be used for worship once again.


Want more stories from Central Asia? Check out my other posts:
Bukhara to Tashkent: Night trains in Uzbekistan
Turkistan and Otrar: Exploring Kazakhstan’s deep south
Eagle hunter: In the mountains of Kyrgyzstan

For more on my experiences in the former Soviet Union, check out my thoughts on the process of change in Russia since 1992:
The Russian Evolution: How Russia has changed since the fall of Communism.


Want to check out Central Asia for yourself? Take a look at these tours offered by Indy Guide and Kalpak Travel!


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Hi! I’m Jill, and I’m a British blogger who has been travelling for more than 15 years, visiting 65 countries on 6 continents. I love to travel both solo and with groups, and to discover the cultures and peoples of the countries I visit. And I love to share a good story or two along the way!

Bukhara to Tashkent: Night trains in Uzbekistan

Bukhara to Tashkent: Night trains in Uzbekistan

It’s quarter to ten on a Wednesday night, and I’m standing on a station platform in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

I’m here on a trip-of-a-lifetime, bucket-list kind of adventure – and that’s saying something for someone who travels as much as I do. But for many years now I’ve dreamed of visiting the beautiful squares and madrassahs of Uzbekistan, with their towering turquoise domes and exquisite mosaic façades. Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva: they have been on my wishlist for years, and this was the trip where I was finally able to see them with my own eyes.

My journey started in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s modern capital which is getting more modern by the day as the government invests significant money in modernisation, development and restoration, a theme I found throughout the country. From there I travelled by high-speed train to mythical Samarkand, with its historic Registan Square, before a drive across the desert, passing caravanserais and ancient water sources, to the ancient city of Bukhara.

Using the trains in Uzbekistan is a great way to experience the country, as I found out on a trip from Bukhara to Tashkent. | Tashkent Bukhara | Tashkent to Bukhara train | Tashkent train station | Uzbek railways | Uzbekistan railways | Trains in Uzbekistan

Ark Citadel, Bukhara

I must confess I fell in love with Bukhara – more than a little bit. More relaxed and remote than Samarkand, it has an even greater abundance of beautifully-restored historic buildings showcasing the best of Uzbekistan culture, as well as a central square which hummed at night with lights, laughter and the smell of good food. We visited mosques and madrassahs, hammams and citadels; we explored local bazaars full of fresh produce, and tsarist Russian palaces where we explored mirrored reception rooms, then bought beautifully-painted scenes of the Silk Road from the Uzbek vendors just outside the door, in a perfect example of the contradictions of Central Asia.

In a restaurant one night I sang Russian folk songs with a local musician while we relaxed with traditional plov and Uzbek wine. And we walked the streets, many still being modernised and upgraded, and watched historic landmarks still in the throes of restoration as Uzbekistan maintains and celebrates its deep cultural roots, neglected for so many years.

But all good things must come to an end, and it was time to head east. (Khiva? That is further west, and has given me an excuse to return to Uzbekistan one day). Our route took us back to the capital, Tashkent, and our mode of transport was the overnight train. The high-speed network that took us to Samarkand does, in fact, go on to Bukhara, but that is a modern, sleek affair that places convenience firmly above soul. Our train, however, was good solid Soviet stock, lettered inside and out in Cyrillic characters and apparently unchanged from the train I first took back in February 1992, just 6 weeks after the end of Communism, from St Petersburg to Moscow back in the “old country” to the west.

Using the trains in Uzbekistan is a great way to experience the country, as I found out on a trip from Bukhara to Tashkent. | Tashkent Bukhara | Tashkent to Bukhara train | Tashkent train station | Uzbek railways | Uzbekistan railways | Trains in Uzbekistan

On this journey we were three in our carriage, and with luggage to contend with, things were a little tight. Upper bunks were already folded down for the night, and our carriage guard handed out sheets and blankets for us to make up our beds. The carriages were air conditioned, but not until the train got underway; from sweaty heat as we waited for departure, by morning we were shivering under blankets. Old-fashioned sliding doors gave us privacy, and deadbolts on each door gave us security. Toilets were at either end of the carriage, but otherwise it was a no-frills affair.

With our train setting off at 10:30pm and arriving in Tashkent train station at 06:30am, we settled down for what proved to be a comfortable night, rocked to sleep by the motion of the carriage. We woke the next morning to the Uzbek landscape rolling past, the westerly deserts having by now made way for farmland and greenery as we approached the capital. As we rolled into our destination, we passed the sleek, futuristic nose of the Tashkent to Samarkand high-speed train, waiting to make its way back to the west. Are they more comfortable? Undoubtedly, but for sheer experience you can’t beat the Soviet night train across the desert.

Using the trains in Uzbekistan is a great way to experience the country, as I found out on a trip from Bukhara to Tashkent. | Tashkent Bukhara | Tashkent to Bukhara train | Tashkent train station | Uzbek railways | Uzbekistan railways | Trains in Uzbekistan

The new high-speed train waits to depart from Tashkent station


I travelled to Uzbekistan with Exodus Travels. Want to check out Uzbekistan for yourself? Check out their site, or take a look at these tours offered by Kalpak Travel!

For more on Central Asia, see my other posts:
Central Asia: rebuilding a heritage
Turkistan and Otrar: Exploring Kazakhstan’s deep south
Eagle hunter: In the mountains of Kyrgyzstan

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Using the trains in Uzbekistan is a great way to experience the country, as I found out on a trip from Bukhara to Tashkent. | Tashkent Bukhara | Tashkent to Bukhara train | Tashkent train station | Uzbek railways | Uzbekistan railways | Trains in UzbekistanUsing the trains in Uzbekistan is a great way to experience the country, as I found out on a trip from Bukhara to Tashkent. | Tashkent Bukhara | Tashkent to Bukhara train | Tashkent train station | Uzbek railways | Uzbekistan railways | Trains in Uzbekistan

Hi! I’m Jill, and I’m a British blogger who has been travelling for more than 15 years, visiting 65 countries on 6 continents. I love to travel both solo and with groups, and to discover the cultures and peoples of the countries I visit. And I love to share a good story or two along the way!